Newly re-inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to not attend a G-8 summit of world leaders at Camp David on May 18-19. The decision was communicated to the United States during a phone call between Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama late Wednesday, in which Obama congratulated Putin on his inauguration. Putin explained that as he has just returned to office, he needs to focus on his responsibilities at home — a weak excuse as he was never really out of power during his time as Russia's prime minister.
The decision comes after Putin was more or less disinvited from attending the NATO summit, which takes place in the days following the G-8 summit. Russia and NATO initially planned to hold their first summit since 2007 on May 20-21 (subsequent summits were canceled after 2008 when Russia went to war with NATO partner Georgia). The summit would have been particularly important for Russia, because Moscow determined it as a time to present its stance on U.S. plans for missile defense deployments in Central Europe and Turkey. However, with no progress in negotiations between Russia and the United States in the days leading up to the summit, NATO decided to cancel the Russia-NATO portion.
Russia responded by holding its own conference on missile defense last week, which was attended by every NATO member as well as Russia's own military alliance members from the Collective Security Treaty Organization. At the conference, Russia made it clear that it believed it was the primary target for U.S. missile defense plans, and that Russia had no choice but to react to such plans by invoking a "pre-emptive strike" policy on U.S. missile defense installations planned for Central Europe and Turkey — meaning Russia was willing to bomb U.S. facilities in Poland, Romania and Turkey. This is most likely a reach for Russia's intentions, but it is something that definitely grabbed the attention of NATO and its members.
Now with Putin making it clear that he won't even come to the United States for the G-8 summit, it appears the standoff between the United States and Russia could be heading toward a major crisis. But one country, Germany, stands close to Russia and seems to be trying to smooth things over.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday in a speech to the Bundestag that Germany should be committed to cooperation with Russia on missile defense. She explained that in a meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen — the man who canceled the Russia-NATO summit — she emphasized the importance of Russia's interests, as well as the importance of the missile defense system. Germany has long supported many of Russia's positions concerning NATO, such as vetoing NATO expansion to the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine in 2007. Moscow has counted on its relationship with Berlin as a divider and spoiler within the organization.
This does not mean that Germany is a puppet of Russia. Instead, Berlin has been trying to prevent a major crisis between NATO and Russia from erupting. Germany still signed off on the expansion of the U.S. missile defense plans at the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010, though Merkel did make it clear at that summit that Germany also supported having Russian cooperation on such missile defense plans. Berlin plays in the middle to pacify Moscow — something it seemed to be doing again on Thursday. Berlin faces several predicaments with the European financial crises, Greek instability and a new French government. It cannot handle a Russia intent on ratcheting up a confrontation with the United States over missile defense with the Europeans absorbing the fallout.
But in retaining support for the Russian position, Germany risks alienating those NATO members Russia just threatened with a pre-emptive strike. The Central Europeans have been wary of the close relationship between Berlin and Moscow, and such support by Germany for Russia's position on missile defense, a week after Russia threatened Central Europe, is going to make countries like Poland and Romania even more nervous. But at this time, Germany is simply trying to put out one fire at a time.