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Defiant Putin sets himself up as G8 outsider

18 june 2013, 17:16
0
Russia's President Vladimir Putin. ©AFP
Russia's President Vladimir Putin. ©AFP
Vladimir Putin's participation in the first G8 summit of his new term was supposed to seal his comeback to the global stage as Russia's paramount leader after winning a third presidential term last year, AFP reports.

Instead, it brought to the forefront a Kremlin agenda increasingly at odds with Western values and raised fresh questions about Russia's membership in the club of the world's richest democracies.

On the first day of the summit in Northern Ireland, French President Francois Hollande reiterated the persisting disagreements with Russia over its close ally Syria.

President Barack Obama's pledge to deepen cooperation with Putin after their talks could not mask a lack of major progress on any bilateral or international issues --- or any personal warmth between the two leaders.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper might have captured the sour mood at the luxury Lough Erne resort when he said Putin did not belong in the G8 because he supported "the thugs of the Assad regime."

"Let's be blunt, that's what this is: the G7 plus one," Harper told reporters.

A member of the Russian delegation immediately dismissed the criticism as "emotions" that should not get in the way of major powers working together.

"I would not treat emotions too seriously," Russia's G8 sherpa Alexei Krasov said, suggesting Harper's comments were driven by his domestic agenda. "Of course, every politician caters to his audience at home."

While Western leaders may no longer be willing to mask irreconcilable differences with Russia with smiles and back-slapping, Putin himself is increasingly prepared to set Russia against the West.

After talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron at Downing Street on Sunday, the Kremlin chief said it was incomprehensible how the West could support flesh-eating Syrian rebels, referring to widely-circulated footage apparently showing a rebel cutting out and consuming the organs of a regime soldier.

"Do you want to supply these people with arms?" Putin asked reporters as he stood next to Cameron. "In that case this hardly has anything to do with the humanitarian values which have for centuries been preached in Europe."

"At least in Russia we cannot imagine this," he said, pointedly ignoring his host's indignation that President Bashar al-Assad was using nerve gas against his people.

Since the start of the war in 2011, Russia has supported the Damascus regime, its closest ally in the Middle East, while the West has backed the opposition.

Russia and the United States agreed in May to try and find a way to end the bloodletting by convening a peace conference.

But the past few weeks have been marked by stark disagreements, with Russia and the West now supplying arms to the warring sides.

Moscow said US intelligence claims that Assad had used chemical weapons were not persuasive and warned Washington against making the mistake it made when invading Iraq after claiming Saddam Hussein harboured weapons of mass destruction.

On the first day of the summit, Russia ramped up the confrontational rhetoric by saying it would not permit a no-fly zone to be enforced over Syria.

The West has occasionally voiced concern that Russia may not be worth a G8 seat ever since the country joined the group under then president Boris Yeltsin in 1997.

But the fresh doubts come as the Kremlin is overseeing an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition at home after Putin returned as president after four years as prime minister following a virulently anti-Western election campaign.

In a hugely symbolic gesture, Putin skipped the G8 summit at Camp David last year and went to authoritarian Belarus for the first foreign visit of his new term.

Observers say that for a leader who has just weathered the biggest opposition protests of his 13-year rule, the ongoing debate about the possible foreign intervention in Syria may be acquiring distinctly personal overtones.

"The differences (between Russia and the West) are very serious," said Maria Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"I do not think that the G8 will legally become a G7 but its influence will be waning, also because they don't speak with one voice."

"At the end of the day that's Putin's own choice," she added. "Russia is inching toward isolationism. His main goal is to strengthen control inside Russia."

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