With or Without Him? The German Debate on Putin’s Suspension from the G7

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As long as Putin does not change course in Ukraine, the G7 are well advised to stick to their suspension of Russia from their ranks

Under Germany’s presidency, the G7 convened for the second summit in a row in the absence of Vladimir Putin. As long as Putin does not change course in Ukraine, the G7 are well advised to stick to their suspension of Russia from their ranks.

Just before the Group of Seven (G7) met in southern Bavaria, violent clashes in Eastern Ukraine had escalated dramatically. At the end of last week, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) voiced its concern over the large amounts of heavy weapons moved to the frontlines of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). In clear violation of the Minsk agreement, the cities of Marinka and Debalseva suffered from a combined Russian-separatist assault. 

Mirroring the escalation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine, diplomatic tensions between Russia and the European Union (EU) heightened in the run-up of the G7 Summit after a German Member of Parliament was barred from entering Russia in May. In response to the EU’s vocal protest, the Kremlin eventually published a “blacklist” of unwelcome politicians, including many of whom had long-standing ties to Russia’s civil society.

Against this backdrop, the G7 convened for the second summit in a row in the absence of Vladimir Putin. His continued suspension led to a vocal reprise of the German public debate on whether excluding Russia from the G7 was justified or counterproductive.

From G7 to G8: More than Economics

Since its founding in 1975, the G7 has steadily extended its agenda beyond issues of economic governance. Critics argue that the G7 format has long lost legitimacy, since its member states no longer reflect the global economic distribution of power. Granted, the G7 are not as potent as they used to be, and several of its members no longer belong to the most powerful economies in the world. Despite legitimate questions regarding the constitution of the G7, however, the forum remains the only gathering in which the major industrialized democracies in Europe, North America and Asia consult on tricky issues of political, economic and environmental governance. 

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia became increasingly involved in the G7 process. In 1998, the club officially extended its membership to Russia despite the fact that the latter's economy at the time was roughly as potent as that of the Netherlands. The decision was based on political rather than economic reasoning: With the inclusion of Russia into the G8, the G7 wanted to signal Russia’s inclusion into their ranks as the leading industrialized democracies in the post-Cold War international order.  

Over the course of Putin’s second presidential term, expectations towards Russia’s transition to a democratic and benign middle power were utterly disappointed. Putin’s authoritarian tendencies increasingly posed a problem to the self-understanding and common values of the G7. Ultimately, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the blatant violation of international law and its propaganda war against the West no longer allowed the G7 to ignore Putin’s authoritarian tendencies at home. 

Challenging Putin’s Suspension

As per their usual division of labor, Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier chose a different tone when weighing into the discussion on whether to invite Putin to rejoin the G7. While Angela Merkel refrained from commenting on Russia’s potential re-entry into the G8 in the near future, Steinmeier said in an interview last week that while the breach of international law disqualified Putin’s participation in this current summit, “we should not have an interest in seeing the G8 turning permanently into the G7”.

Not everyone in Steinmeier’s party (SPD) agrees that an immediate end to Russia’s suspension is out of question. Those opposing the exclusion of Putin at the Summit in Elmau include the leaders of Germany’s two main institutions for doing business with Russia. Both Matthias Platzeck, senior SPD member and head of the German-Russian Forum, and Eckard Cordes, chairman of Germany’s Committee on Eastern Economic relations, publically appealed to Ms Merkel to invite Russia to rejoin the G7. They were supported by prominent SPD figures such as former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has long advocated for a softer approach towards Russia. 

Joining their ranks was Dieter Spöri, president of the European Movement Germany (EBD) and long-standing member of the SPD’s Federal Executive Board.  According to this line of argumentation, the G7 Summit merely amplifies the renewed West-East confrontation. Every major international crisis and risk to international peace and stability, he argues, can only be solved through a “consensual approach” with the inclusion of the “atomic superpower” Russia. The G7’s “self amputation”, according to Spöri, merely pushes Russia to pursue a closer alliance with China. 

Agreement across the Political Spectrum 

The SPD has a historic record in supporting close ties between Germany and Russia. In the controversy surrounding Putin’s absence at the G7 Summit, however, critics of the official government line go far beyond the SPD camp. In an online poll conducted by Spiegel Online, in which over 32,000 of its readers participated, 79.14 percent of the respondents agreed that it was “a mistake not to invite Putin because the Ukraine crisis can only be solved through dialogue”. Only 18.44 percent agreed that it was “correct not to invite Putin given that his aggression in Ukraine is not acceptable and he has squandered his right to be invited”. 

In line with the public sentiment, representatives of all four parties in the German Bundestag discussed the value of the G7 in one of Germany’s high-profile political talk shows- “Anne Will”. Ms Will’s guests included former prime minister of the state of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber (CSU), former chairman of the opposition party The Left (Die Linke), Oskar Lafontaine, and senior SPD member Klaus von Dohnanyi. In a rare moment of near- political unity across the party spectrum, the three gentlemen agreed that excluding Putin from the G7 Summit was a grave mistake. Katrin Goering-Eckardt, co-chair of the Green parliamentary group in the German Bundestag, therefore found herself in the position as sole defender of the government’s stance on Putin’s suspension from the G7. If it had not been for her principled stance, no one would have noted that it is in fact Putin himself who holds the key to Russia’s suspension from the G7/G8.

Logical Fallacies 

The main argument put forward by the skeptics of Putin’s suspension from the G7 is that “we need Russia in order to solve all kinds of international conflicts”, for example in Syria. This line of argument ignores the fact that Russia has- to put it mildly- not been helpful in solving the conflict or even trying to protect civilians in Syria for the past four years. Russia’s diplomatic and military backing of the Assad regime has not significantly changed since the Ukraine crisis erupted and relations between the West and Russia turned sour. If Russia is interested in playing a constructive role in Syria, it has every possibility to do so inside or outside of the forum of the UN Security Council. 
Similarly, the argument does not hold with regards to the Iran nuclear talks. It is in fact in Russia’s own interest to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb and to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Overstating the risk of Russia potentially playing the spoiler in the nuclear talks fundamentally ignores Russia’s own national interest. 

The second major argument brought forward focuses on the general value of diplomacy in solving international disputes. While it is absolutely valid to argue that the Ukraine crisis demands a diplomatic solution, this argument has little to do with the dispute on the G7/ G8 format. Needless to say, the heads of the G7 states talk to Russia all the time, and even NATO uses every opportunity to emphasize that the doors for diplomacy with the Kremlin remain wide open. No one seriously argues that all channels of communication to Putin should be shut down. On the contrary, there are plenty of channels through which diplomatic attempts at de-escalation and conflict management are pursued, including bilateral meetings, regular phone calls between heads of states, negotiations in the “Normandy Format” and debates within the UN Security Council. 

Common Values: More than Just a Lip Service

In their final declaration at Schloss Elmau, the G7 leaders emphasized their commitment to a set of common values and principles, more specifically “the importance of freedom, peace and territorial integrity, as well as respect for international law and respect for human rights”. Putin’s Russia has clearly and repeatedly violated these principles, both at home and abroad. As long as Putin does not change course in Ukraine, the G7 are well advised to stick to their suspension of Russia from their ranks. Inviting Putin to rejoin the G7 in Bavaria would have signaled going back to “business as usual” with Russia. Such a move would not only have been a signal of moral bankruptcy. It would also have undermined the sanctity of some of the most important international ordering principles of our times- the respect for territorial integrity and political independence.