The G8 summit
Putin takes aim
A row about Russian missiles hangs over the G8 summit
GERMANY'S swish resort of Heiligendamm might escape addition to the Kremlin’s list of new nuclear targets in Europe, given President Vladimir Putin’s visit there. But that will provide little reassurance for the seven leaders of the world’s big, rich and long-standing democracies that make up the rest of the G8. They, and Mr Putin, will meet at the seaside setting on Wednesday June 6th before the summit begins officially the next day.
The Kremlin’s spin doctors are trying hard to play down remarks made by Mr Putin about aiming his country’s missiles at Europe. They claim that he was giving a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question about America's planned missile-defence installations in Eastern Europe. But the damage to Russia’s image as a friendly country has been done. Russian officers and officials have grumbled before about America’s sometimes cavalier attitude to strategic security. This time the combative words came from the top. Even at the height of their row over Iraq, it is impossible to imagine that France would have targeted its nuclear weapons on Britain or America, let alone the other way around. Just as democracies do not make war on each other, they do not point nuclear warheads in each other’s direction.
Germany will hope to salvage something from the summit’s original agenda of aid for Africa and climate change. Difficult though those issues are, they pale by comparison with the difficulty of dealing with a newly assertive Russia.
So far, the western response has been to describe Mr Putin’s remarks as unhelpful rather than outrageous. As so often with tough talk from Russia, outside governments try to dismiss it as aimed for internal consumption, and thus not to be taken seriously. But treating Russia as an unruly adolescent to be part-soothed, part-ignored, works badly.
One reason is that Russia’s assertiveness has not been matched by a clear expression of what its government actually wants. The commonest refrain from the Kremlin is the desire to be noticed and taken seriously. Paradoxically, the more that Russia shows itself to be a sham democracy and bullying neighbour, the less willing other countries are to treat it with much respect.
At this week’s summit, Mr Putin may notice the absence of the man who was previously his staunchest defender: Jacques Chirac, France’s former president. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, is keen to break with the cosy and sometimes mysterious habits of French policy towards Russia. He promises a “frank” exchange with Mr Putin. Mr Sarkozy’s family fled communist Hungary. Like Germany’s Angela Merkel, who grew up in the Soviet-run part of Germany, he finds Mr Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union repellent.
Yet dislike of Russia’s current path does not create unity. Both France and Germany are unenthusiastic about America’s planned missile-defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. President George Bush continues to protest that these are aimed at Iranian nuclear weapons, not at Russia. But with the exception perhaps of Britain's Tony Blair, a lame-duck ally who will shortly leave office, he will find little support from his western counterparts. The American leader may save the hard talking on nuclear issues for later: he has invited Mr Putin to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, early next month.
And for all Mr Bush’s warnings about Russia’s departure from democracy and good neighbourliness, America still needs Mr Putin’s help, chiefly on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also on the future of Kosovo, which it wants to bring to the UN Security Council soon.
So after so much unpleasantness in past weeks, it may be in all countries’ interests to patch things up as much as possible. Mr Putin in particular likes to portray himself both as a strong defender of Russia’s interests and as a welcome guest at the world’s top table. Fostering the latter image will require at least a temporary change of tone, if not of approach. Most G8 summits produce a welter of carefully honed platitudes, in which differences are finessed and blurred as much as possible. This one is likely to be no exception.