Russian roulette at the G20 

Author: Bruce Jones, Brookings

The BRICS have brusquely quashed an early effort by Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop and prime minister Abbott to exclude Russia from the Brisbane G20 over its actions in Ukraine. Though diplomatically phrased, the meaning was clear: ‘The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all Member States equally and no one Member State can unilaterally determine its nature and character’.

The G20 needs to find a more effective mechanism to deal with international security issues. There’s both a positive and a defensive agenda here. The defensive agenda is simply to not allow geopolitical tensions, which are on the rise, to interfere with the core financial and economic work of the G20. The positive agenda is that there are a subset of international security issues — transnational terrorism, piracy, organised crime, infectious disease, perhaps even some set of weak or failed states — where the interests of the great and major powers (the G20 membership more or less) roughly align, and where the G20 members could drive forward innovation.

The G20 did have to grapple with the Syria crisis during the Russian presidency, in St Petersburg in 2013. Scholars and practitioners of the G20 had previously mooted the pros and cons of dealing with international security issues within the G20, but as always, events trumped theory. The timing of the crisis involving chemical weapons use by the Assad regime meant that the issue couldn’t be kept out of the G20 chambers. Perhaps surprisingly, participants in that discussion report that there was a reasonably mature discussion of Syria, and that it didn’t derail the economic work of the rest of the Summit — though it did dominate the headlines and dull the message of the Summit about continuing to resist protectionist measures.

In Syria, though, the members of the G20 were in proxy competition, but not in active confrontation. Ukraine is different. Now, the G20 faces a situation where one of its members, Russia, is in active diplomatic, political and legal confrontation with other members — it is an active military participant in a crisis to which the EU and the United States are interested parties and is under sanctions from the West. And Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not just an act of conflict: it threatened the most important legal and political foundation of the international order, namely the non-use of force to acquire territory.

So it may be understandable that Bishop sought to exclude Russia from the Brisbane G20. The immediate reaction from the rest of the BRICS, though, made clear that trying to exclude Russia from Brisbane would be very costly — that it might not be possible without breaking the G20 itself. For China and India and other emerging powers, membership of the G20 is not only an important symbol of their rise, it’s a seat at what many of them view as the top decision-making table on international affairs, certainly international economic affairs.

Many commentators in the West saw the BRICS standing behind Russia’s participation in the G20 as evidence of BRICS support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. What actually motivated the BRICS was a firm intent to assert the principle that they couldn’t be excluded from international decision-making at the say-so of the West. Those days are behind us.

If that will make for an awkward encounter between the West and Russia at the G20, there’s nevertheless a silver lining here. Given that we may well experience over the course of the next decade a simultaneous financial and security crisis involving the top powers, it may prove useful that there’s precedent for not excluding one of the G20 members because of a political or security crisis. Imagine, for example, that we were facing a new round of financial crisis involving China, but that simultaneously China, the US and Japan were involved in a tense diplomatic or military stand-off in the East China Sea. Would it make sense to exclude China?

And Russia may well prove to be reasonable within the G20 — after all, they have to worry not just about the West’s reactions but also India’s and China’s, and neither of those countries would take kindly to having Mr Putin turn the G20 into a platform for grandstanding against the West, at the price of loss of progress on the economic front.

The Brisbane meeting may be a harbinger of much that’s to come. We may face a situation where Russia acts as a spoiler within many international mechanisms. So far, that’s not what we’re seeing: Russia is blocking action on Syria and Ukraine, where it’s an active party to the conflicts; but it’s simultaneously supporting other UN Security Council action in Africa. We’re not seeing Russia move to hamper NATO operations in Afghanistan, which it could. In the Arctic, it continues to behave like a responsible state. It hasn’t thrown a wrench in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which again it easily could.

So far, Russia is containing its clash with the West to the specific fights in Syria and Ukraine; but if the situation in eastern Europe remains as it is, or escalates further, if sanctions deepen and if tensions between Russia and the West mount, that behaviour may change. Ironically, because of the presence of China and India, and their vested interests in the G20’s performance, Brisbane may be one place where Putin is better behaved. I still don’t envy Julie Bishop, though.

Bruce Jones is Deputy Director for Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, Washington.

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