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Booting Russia from the G8 Ends 16 Years of Pretending Moscow Should Sit at the Big-Kids Table

What a relief

AFP/Getty Images

Today, the G8 minus 1 met in the Hague and, rather than kick out Russia outright, simply reformed as the G7, thereby punishing (in their minds) Russia for annexing part of the sovereign nation of Ukraine. ("Countries of the G7 end their membership in the G8," read the headline of the Soviet-era wire agency ITAR-TASS.)

Really, though, it was the organization—and Russia—returning to a more natural state: The G8 just went back to being the organization it was until 1998, when Bill Clinton invited Russia in, hammering what he hoped would be the final nail in the Cold War coffin. Since then, Russia underwent a leadership change, first from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, then from the non-ideological Vladimir Putin to today's Vladimir Putin, father of all the Russians, hater of the West.

During the tenure of both Vladimirs, however, one thing has remained constant: Russia's historical identity crisis. It's a fight Russia has been fighting within itself, formally, since the mid-nineteenth century battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles. Really, though, it is an issue that has been weighing on the collective Russian psyche since Peter the Great set Russia on a European course of development at the dawn of the eighteenth century. For the last 300 years, Russia has been trying to figure out its identity vis-a-vis Europe and the West. Is Russia Europe or Asia, or some hybrid of the two, or something entirely different? If Russia becomes part of Europe, does it become of it? If so, what would that mean Russian culture, for the essence of Russia's soul?

One of the more remarkable things I saw in my years reporting out of Moscow was Putin at an international investors' conference in the fall of 2010, insisting, vehemently and at length, that Russia was an integral part of Europe, which would be nothing without Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It was strange not just because you'd never hear an Italian or French leader verbalize such insecurity, but because one of the cornerstones of Putin's second term as president was a concept called "sovereign democracy." The idea was that Russia is a democratic, Western nation but does it in its own unique, and tightly managed, way. That is, we Russians have elections, we have courts and judicial processes, we have a motley and varied media biosphere, but we do things to manage the result because Russians, unlike the people of the developed European nations, aren't quite ready for real democracy yet. We've only had 20 years, you see.

Take a look at what political analyst Masha Lipman wrote about this back when the concept was introduced, in 2006, and note the echoes of today:

In the weeks before the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, two things went on at once: There was an intense public relations effort to improve Russia's image and, along with it, a widening crackdown on democracy and individual freedoms. The reality, not obscured by the PR, is that the Russian government has resorted recently to police practices strongly reminiscent of those used some three decades ago in the Soviet Union.

On the public relations side, one of the most influential Kremlin aides, Vladislav Surkov, met with Western journalists to explain that Russian "sovereign democracy" is not much different from democratic practices of the Western countries. "Sovereign democracy" is a Kremlin coinage that conveys two messages: first, that Russia's regime is democratic and, second, that this claim must be accepted, period. Any attempt at verification will be regarded as unfriendly and as meddling in Russia's domestic affairs.

And there's the rub: For the entirety of his 14-year reign, Vladimir Putin has wanted to have it both ways. To be part of the West, but not of the West. To sit at the big boys' table and be considered a big boy player himself, but to be able, at any point, to opt out of their ultimately foreign rules. To claim cultural, historical, economic, and geopolitical kinship with the West while simultaneously claiming utter non-Western uniqueness. 

Take a look at this Putin speech, from nearly two years ago, delivered to assembled Russian ambassadors:

Over the upcoming years, Russia will host summits of some of the world’s biggest multilateral organisations and forums, such as APEC, the G20 and G8, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and BRICS. Russia’s presidency of these groups and forums will give us not only the chance to boost Russia’s influence on the international stage, but also to be more energetic in promoting the indisputable priority of political and diplomatic means of resolving the various serious problems in the world.

But also:

Russia’s foreign policy has always been independent and it will remain so. We follow a consistent policy based on continuity and the unique role our country plays in world affairs and in global civilisation’s development, a role that has taken shape over the course of centuries.

In other words, Russia is a key global player inextricably and integrally woven into the international diplomatic community, but bound by nothing but its uniqueness. (Note too that in that July 2012 speech, Putin was already moving toward the more paranoid, standoffish Putin we know today, saying, "International relations are growing more complex in nature all the time...they are becoming tenser and more uncertain, and, regrettably, there often seems to be less place for trust and openness.") Like in 2006, Russia insists that it is a European country, and insists on maintaining its membership in various Western clubs and treaties, but when it is accused of violating post-War European norms—guess which government faces the most suits in the European Court of Human Rights?—howls about Russia's uniqueness and European chauvinism and double standards

It's been tough balancing act to maintain, one that Russians call "sitting with one ass in two chairs." Today, the West and Japan provided a clarifying moment by pulling one chair away, ending the agony. And it's about time. Russia, in insisting on its mystical duality, has been, increasingly, a thorn in the organization's side—as well as its own. 

Correction: A reference to Peter the Great misstated when he "set Russia on a European course of development." It was at the dawn of the eighteenth century.