Russia, US row dims hopes of smooth G8 summit

Moscow, May 18 | Updated: May 19 2006, 05:30am hrs
Russian President Vladimir Putin seems ready to run the risk of staging a fractious affair when he hosts the G8 summit in July, rather than give ground to US criticism and lose face at home.

He would like to use the summit to trumpet the return of a resurgent and self-confident Russia to the global stage as an energy superpower, with himself at the helm.

But if Russia ends up looking isolated at the summit, it may only confirm the prejudices of Western critics: that Russia does not belong in the G8 club of leading democracies. Diplomats are in overdrive to smooth out wrinkles in the run-up to the July 15-17 summit in St. Petersburg. But issues dividing Russia from mainstream Western thinking are conversely only piling up.

There is the issue of democratic progress or not in Russia, Russian gas supplies to Europe and stalled talks on Russias World Trade Organization membership, to which Washington holds the key. And there is Iran, where Russia is refusing to back Western calls for tough measures over Tehrans nuclear programme. Then there is the question of Russias uneven relations with ex-Soviet republics that have swung pro-West, like Ukraine and Georgia. And flip side of the coin the good ties it pursues with Uzbekistan and Belarus, that leave the West aghast. Political pressure exploded on May 4 when Vice President Dick Cheney, in a broadside at Putin, attacked Russias democratic record and accused Moscow of using its huge energy supplies to blackmail bordering countries.

The atmosphere now is not the best. My expectation is that it will not get much better, unfortunately, Igor Shuvalov, Russias sherpa who has criss-crossed the globe in advance of the summit, conceded with some understatement on Tuesday.

Putin says he does not envisage a return to the Cold War, though relations with the United States are now close to the chilliest they have been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It may not come to an open row in St Petersburg. But there are likely to be some strained smiles on faces when Bush joins Putin and others for the family portrait of G8 leaders. Russia has set energy security the reliability of both oil and gas producers, like Russia, and their clients to honour their commercial commitments at the top of the agenda. That once seemed a diplomatically safe summit issue. But it backfired when Moscow briefly turned off its gas to Ukraine this year in a price row that disrupted supplies to Europe.

Cheneys remarks accusing Moscow of using energy exports for intimidation and blackmail made Russia part of the problem. With the Europeans in particular alarmed at their own over-reliance on Russian gas supplies, it is difficult to see how there can be a meeting of minds at the summit, analysts say.