Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be on the guest list when US President Barack Obama and other world leaders assemble in Germany next week, as part of the punishment for alleged Kremlin-supported aggression in Ukraine.
However, the Russian president remains a central player in international affairs, including the US-led nuclear talks with Iran, even with the pledge by Western leaders to try to isolate Putin while the crisis in Ukraine persists.
Just this month, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Moscow for talks with Putin and US Secretary of State John Kerry went to Sochi to confer with him. Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke by telephone in recent days and agreed to resume talks aimed at ending Syria’s civil war, where Putin’s cooperation also is crucial.
US officials said the engagement is limited to areas where Moscow and the West have shared interests. Outreach to Putin on such matters, officials argue, should not be seen as a sign that the West has accepted the “status quo” in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists continue to stoke instability.
“It makes sense to cooperate where there is a clear mutual interest as long as you’re not being asked to back off matters of principle that matter to the security and well-being of your country and your allies and your friends,” US Vice President Joe Biden said on Wednesday.
Some analysts say the West risks sending mixed signals to Ukraine, where the government has been pushing for more support. Wilson Center former Soviet states expert Matthew Rojansky said there is “growing disappointment” in Ukraine about what officials there see as the West’s “pale commitment” to protecting its sovereignty.
‘UNDER THE BUS’
“They are all deeply worried that the United States will throw them under the bus to make a grand bargain with Putin,” Rojansky wrote in an e-mail from Kiev, where he was meeting with government officials and civil society groups.
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine escalated last year when the Kremlin-backed president in Kiev fled amid protests. Pro-Russian separatists moved to take over the strategically important Crimean Peninsula, which Russia later annexed.
The West does not recognize that move. However, the US and Europe have largely given up on Russia’s returning the area to Ukraine.
Instead, the West has focused on Moscow’s threatening moves in eastern Ukraine, the site of months of clashes between government forces and rebels that Kiev says are backed by Moscow. A fragile ceasefire agreed to in February has been breached repeatedly.
The West wielded the threat of diplomatic isolation as a punishment for Russia based in part on the belief that Putin values being seen as a big global player. He has tried to use the West’s actions to bolster Russian nationalism and his own popularity at home.
On Thursday, Putin suggested that the US corruption investigation into soccer’s governing body was part of an attempt to take the 2018 World Cup away from Russia. He also accused the US of seeking to “illegally persecute” people.
The West’s clearest pressure point is the Russian economy. The ruble has stabilized after a dramatic freefall last year that was attributed to both falling oil prices and the West’s economic penalties. Still, Russia’s economy remains shaky.
However, it appears unlikely that the US and Europe will toughen sanctions without a major increase in Russian aggression. European nations with strong financial ties with Russia fear the sanctions could damage their own economies.
When Obama meets with European leaders at next week’s G7 summit in Germany, he is expected to press them to renew sanctions set to expire this summer. Russia was invited to join the G7, a bloc of leading industrial nations, in 1998 and remained a member of what was then called the G8 until last year, when the original members suspended its participation in retaliation for its actions in Ukraine.
Center for Strategic and International Studies Europe expert Heather Conley said that one of the risks for the West in deepening engagement with Putin while the crisis in Ukraine continues is that the Russian leader might start to think he can simply wait out the US and Europe’s attention span.
“We’re really stuck,” she said. “Putin is not going to come to his senses. This is a long-term challenge.”
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