G7 foreign ministers take a hard line on Russia

G7 foreign ministers take a hard line on Russia
G7 foreign ministers meeting in Toronto, Canada to talk about Russia
By Ben Aris in Berlin April 24, 2018

G7 foreign ministers took a hard line on Russia, promising unity in the face of Russian aggression on April 23. The ministers of the richest countries in the world accused Russia of “a pattern of irresponsible and destabilising” behaviour, but in an irony that highlights the changing balance of global power went on to call on Moscow to help resolve the conflict in Syria.

Russia used to attend these meetings as part of the G8 under former president Boris Yeltsin, but after President Vladimir Putin took over it was expelled as part of the sanctions imposed on the country following the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

However, the group has become increasingly irrelevant in the face of the rise of emerging markets. It is telling that when the then US president George W. Bush called a meeting of world leaders to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis it was a G20 meeting that he called, not a G7.

Nonetheless, the foreign ministers took a tough line on Russia at the latest meeting, agreeing to create a “working group to study Russia’s malign behaviour” as well as develop a coordinated plan to push back against foreign interference in elections.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said G7 ministers were deeply concerned about Russia’s destabilising efforts from interfering in elections. “The G7 countries are committed to preventing, stopping and responding to foreign interference,” she said at a press conference at the end of talks, reports Reuters.

Freeland is probably the best qualified of the ministers to comment on Russia, having been the Financial Times bureau chief in Moscow in the early 90s when she got to know all the leading oligarchs well. As a politician she has become an outspoken critic of Putin’s Russia.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was equally outspoken. Speaking to reporters on the margins of the meeting, he said G7 ministers had agreed on the need to be vigilant about Russia.

“What we decided ... was that we were going to set up a G7 group that would look at Russian malign behaviour in all its manifestations — whether it’s cyber warfare, whether it’s disinformation, assassination attempts, whatever it happens to be, and collectively try to call it out,” reports Reuters.

Where the unified front cracked was on the question of Syria. Acting US Secretary of State John Sullivan called on Moscow to stop creating “impediments to peace” in Syria and to play a role in ending the seven-year-long conflict. “Russia must be a constructive partner in Syria or will be held accountable,” he told reporters.

The problem here is that it has become increasingly obvious that Russia is in control of the future of Syria and Putin has effectively sidelined western efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad using proxy rebel forces. That was made abundantly clear in the recent missile strikes against chemical weapons facilities, where the western allies the US, France and the UK went hard on the rhetoric in the run up to the strike but then watered the action down by warning the Russians days in advance and limiting themselves to three targets that Russia claims have been decommissioned. In the end it was a largely symbolic action. 

Moreover, Russia has called the US bluff on Syria as the war was started seven years ago by a CIA covert action together with Saudi special forces that tried to overthrow Assad and ended in failure.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a former advisor to the Yeltsin government and expert on Russia, lambasted the whole Syrian situation and called on the Trump administration to pull out as the war is “unwinnable.” At risk is a military confrontation with Russia, Sachs said in a widely shared interview.

Whether you agree with Sachs’s conclusions or not, the foreign ministers in Toronto implicitly conceded that Russia will remains a key player in any resolution to the conflict there and elsewhere in the region.

The new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was the most realistic saying “…there will be no political solution in Syria without Russia ... and that Russia has to contribute its share to such a solution.”

Maas takes over from Sigmar Gabriel and is seen as taking a much harder line on Russian either his predecessor or the minister before that, Frank-Walter Steinmeier who is now German president.

Nevertheless, European politicians are aware that they need to engage in Russia and that their economies are already much more closely integrated with Russia than they would like to admit. When fresh sanctions were imposed on Russian top businesses on April 6, Europe called on the White House for restraint.

The two-day meeting in Toronto is to prepare for a full G7 leaders’ summit in Charlevoix, Quebec on June 7-8.