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Commentary | 12 November 2014

Putin in Brisbane: Down Under but Not Out

Image of William Pomeranz

William Pomeranz |Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies of the Woodrow Wilson Center

Diplomacy Economy Russia Russia-West Relations Sanctions Ukraine Global Security

President Vladimir Putin already expects a rough reception when he arrives in Australia for the upcoming G20 meeting.  In October, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his intention to “shirt-front” Putin over the downing of the MH 17 airliner in Ukraine.  This colorful Australian-rules football expression describes an aggressive physical challenge that, to put it mildly, does not correspond with the normal diplomatic protocols for welcoming a foreign head of state.

The Ukraine crisis is not on the official G20 agenda, but it will hover over the meeting as most of the major players – Putin, President Obama, Chancellor Merkel – plan to attend.  Putin no doubt will use the gathering to promote his multipolar world view, but while he will find some sympathetic ears, he is unlikely to gain any direct support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  Instead, in light of sanctions and other economic setbacks, Putin faces the new challenge of keeping pace with the G20 development agenda.

Putin lands in Brisbane with considerable baggage.  The last few months have produced a stream of bad economic news for Russia, including the dramatic decrease in oil prices and accompanying drop in state budget revenues.  EU and U.S. sanctions further have undermined specific sectors of the Russian economy while driving away foreign investors.

Despite all of the above difficulties, however, Putin has not lost his swagger.  His performance at the Valdai meeting in Sochi on October 24th was anything but conciliatory, where he accused the U.S. of pursuing a path of “unipolar domination” and abandoning notions of balance of power.  Russia, Putin emphasized, was not seeking a special place in the world but instead simply wanted its interests to be heard and respected.

The G20 represents a forum where Putin can exchange views with other like-minded countries who want to decrease western influence in international financial institutions and to forge a multipolar world.   Indeed, Putin’s most notable allies – his fellow BRICS nations – will all be present in Brisbane.  The BRICS recently announced their intention to create alternatives to the World Bank and the IMF, a first step away from the current global financial architecture.

Yet Putin will not find strong support where he needs it most, namely over Russia’s action in Crimea and Ukraine.  To date, only a handful of nations have recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and none of them will be in Brisbane.  Moreover, Russia’s decision to “respect” the outcome of the November 3 elections in eastern Ukraine has been greeted by stony silence amongst Russia’s purported friends while further aggravating tensions with the EU and the U.S.

So while many countries are following the Ukraine crisis as a critical test of the present global order, they are not openly rallying to Russia’s defense.   Annexation, violations of territorial integrity, and assertions of national sovereignty are bound to upset China and India, for example, since they too possess ethnic minorities within their borders that aspire to greater autonomy and independence.

Brisbane remains an unlikely place for any breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.   Putin may seek out Chancellor Merkel, but she just announced that Europe has no intention of lifting sanctions on Russia any time soon.

In addition, although no official meetings are planned between Putin and President Obama, they may meet informally.  If they do, Obama no doubt will inform Putin that the newly elected Republican Congress is more anti-Russian than the previous one.  Furthermore, the possibility now exists that the current sanctions regime against Russia will be enshrined into law by Congress, thereby making them considerably more difficult to remove.   Whatever small amount of political capital Obama has left will not be spent to make Vladimir Putin’s life easier.

The media undoubtedly will focus on Putin’s various interactions – and avoidances – with world leaders in Brisbane.   Yet the Ukraine crisis hangs over Putin in other ways as well.   It is hard to remember, but just one year ago, Putin welcomed the G20 to Russia and played a critical role in formulating the St. Petersburg Action Plan, which called for promoting economic growth and employment in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.  The 2013 St. Petersburg summit further supported the OECD’s effort to combat tax evasion and offshore banking, as well as the G20s commitment to refrain from introducing new trade and investment protectionist measures.

All these initiatives remain on the Brisbane docket, but in the aftermath of events in Ukraine, Russia increasingly finds itself out of step with the G20 agenda.  Russia’s own economic development strategy is in tatters, since sanctions have restricted key sectors of the Russian economy (banking, energy) as well as deprived Russia of loans from major international financial institutions (EIB, EBRD, the World Bank).   Furthermore, capital flight has reached such catastrophic levels that Russia can no longer wait for multilateral solutions.   Instead, it has decided to pursue a unilateral policy of “de-offshorization” that has little chance of success.   Finally, Russian sanctions on EU and U.S. food products essentially represent protectionist measures in another guise, since their ultimate objective is to promote an import substitution strategy that encourages domestic agricultural production.

The Brisbane meeting is unlikely to change the calculus of any of the major players in the Ukraine crisis.  As the only sanctioned member of the G20, however, Russia has moved from insider to outlier within the group, a dramatic change of fortunes that Putin will have difficulty reversing during his visit down under.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.