The narrative that U.S.-Russian relations are set on a downward path with the return of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin has received a major shot in the arm with this week’s “summit-gate” saga. Aware that the inability to reach any accord between Russia and the United States over the contentious issue of missile defense would overshadow the NATO summit in Chicago, the Obama administration deliberately changed the location and timing of the G-8 summit, originally scheduled in Chicago immediately after the gathering of the Atlantic alliance, to the presidential retreat at Camp David the weekend before. This change of venue was based, in part, on the assessment that it would make it politically easier for Putin to travel to the United States by delinking the two summits.
But the announcement that Putin would eschew attending the G-8 summit altogether seems to have caught Washington, as well as other G-8 members, by surprise. After all, the G-summits are traditionally a venue for heads of state to mingle and discuss the most pressing issues on the international agenda. Though Putin will be sending Prime Minister (and former President) Dmitry Medvedev to the summit, it is unprecedented for a former chief executive to attend in the stead of his successor, even if Medvedev is technically now the No. 2 person in the Russian constitutional hierarchy. More importantly, U.S. President Barack Obama had been preparing for a substantive dialogue with Putin at Camp David, in an effort to keep the “reset” on course; those plans are now on hold, and the two leaders will not meet face to face until the G-20 summit in Mexico in the summer.
Putin explained his inability to travel to the United States at this time by claiming that his presence was required in Moscow to form the new government. But this was seen as a hollow excuse in U.S. government circles. After all, the reasoning went, Putin had been planning his return to the presidency for months, if not years. In 2008, the selection of a new cabinet of ministers was accomplished relatively quickly, and there was no reason this should not have been the case this time around as well. Therefore, many reached the conclusion that Putin’s public refusal to attend the G-8 summit should be chalked up to a personal dislike of the U.S. president and to his skepticism regarding the effectiveness and efficacy of such groups.