By Alexander Kliment
Russian President Vladimir Putin's last minute decision to skip a G8 summit with President Barack Obama is a snub to Washington, but the Russian president's no-show may in fact increase the chances for a constructive relationship between the two countries.
Last week, just days after his inauguration, Putin let it be known that he would not attend the upcoming G8 summit at Camp David, where he and Obama were set for a one on one meeting.
The White House, in turn, said Obama wouldn't attend the 2012 Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit this fall in Vladivostok, Russia -- though it was always hard to imagine Obama skipping the Democratic National Convention.
According to the Kremlin's official explanation, Putin can't leave Russia right now because approving the cabinet nominations submitted to him by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is too sensitive a task for Putin to oversee by phone from Maryland. So Medvedev will send the list to Putin and head to the summit himself.
Putin's decision is a breach of G8 protocol, which expects that sitting heads of state will attend the group's summits. French President Francois Hollande, for example, will attend, just days after his 15 May inauguration. And by sending his number two to an organization in which Russia is already something of a second fiddle, Putin is raising questions about the wisdom of keeping Russia in the group at all.
Accordingly, many analysts have cast the move as a brazen rebuke to the U.S., which Putin alleges is behind the unprecedented street protests that have become a feature of Moscow life since last December.
It's true that the Kremlin's official explanation isn't wholly credible. Most cabinet decisions have likely been agreed upon already, Putin's re-election was never in doubt, and the G8 summit's date has been known for some time. That said, he reassumes the presidency amid rising popular opposition, which has sowed fresh doubts about his legitimacy. Keen to prevent infighting or, worse, insubordination among Russia's powerful elites, Putin could well be preoccupied with some last minute horse-trading at home.
The timing may, in fact, be no better in Washington than it is in Moscow.
Obama is entering a challenging re-election campaign in which he has already drawn fire from his Republican opponent Mitt Romney about the pursuit of a reset with Russia and his broader foreign policy track record. U.S.-Russia ties have deteriorated recently -- on account of disagreements over Syria, continuing friction over missile defense, and Putin's allegations of U.S. complicity in the protest movement -- meaning the U.S. president would be under pressure to take a hard line with Putin.
But that could risk an unpredictable flare-up with the notoriously sharp-tongued and pugnacious Putin. At the very least, it might complicate White House attempts to secure congressional support for granting Russia normal trade relations status so that U.S. companies can benefit from Russia's WTO accession.
In short, with both men facing heightened domestic concerns and pressures, Obama's meeting with Medvedev, who has warmer relations with Obama and who is seen chiefly as a messenger for Putin, carries much less political significance, but also much lower political risk. The practical result is that it leaves open the chance of greater flexibility between Washington and Moscow that could help maintain a pragmatic relationship in the medium term.
Alexander Kliment is an analyst with Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
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