The G7 and the limits of Russia’s ‘political isolation’

March 28, 2014


On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered the major address of his weeklong trip to Europe, focusing on the Russian incursions into Ukraine and the coordinated Western retaliation. “Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations,” Obama said. For annexing Crimea, Russia was punished with temporary exile from this coalition of advanced industrial democracies, a group of Western countries that collectively act on their shared values.

There is just one problem: Russia never shared these values, and the G7 has neither represented global interests nor driven the international agenda for quite some time.

There are a few reasons why that’s the case. Even among countries with similar values and political systems, it can be difficult to align interests, as we’ve seen with the varied Western response to Crimea. Second, as new players have emerged in recent decades, the global power balance has shifted, leaving the G7 representative of a smaller piece of the pie. Any organization that does not include China, for example, is not truly global.

Where we see global political coordination, it is largely ineffectual. Take the March 27 United Nations General Assembly resolution, a vote on the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. At first glance, the result looks like an international rebuke of Russia’s behavior. One hundred countries voted in favor of Ukraine’s denouncement of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Only 11 countries voted against the resolution, including Russia, with its only support coming from neighbors it can bully (Armenia, Belarus) and rogue states with grudges against the established order (Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela).

But this rare example of global coordination comes with many asterisks. Powerful emerging players like China, Brazil and India were among the 58 countries that abstained from the vote, and many more of the 193-country assembly did not participate at all. Russia was not mentioned by name in the resolution. And the vote comes with no enforcement power or actionable outcome. It is purely symbolic, and not even legally binding like United Nations Security Council resolutions — where Russia enjoys veto power.

In order to get practical outcomes, the group of players must be more limited, and aligned. Even in Europe, many nations have been skittish about the recent sanctions. That’s because member states’ interests in Russia vary too widely. For example, with massive exposure to the Russian banking sector, Cyprus cannot afford the sting that sweeping sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy would have. Greece and Austria are reluctant to implement sanctions, since they receive a disproportionately high volume of Russian natural gas, compared to their European neighbors.

That is why, after Russia annexed Crimea, Europe’s sanctions were more muted than America’s. The Obama administration included a Russian bank and several oligarchs who are close with Putin; the Europeans stopped short of these steps. The Kremlin was aware of the distinction, instantly responding with reciprocal countermoves to American sanctions, but not to the Europeans.

It is no surprise that the joint statement threatening further sanctions came at a G7 level — it was limited enough to allow for aligned policy. It is clear that the G7 is sufficiently like-minded to exhibit true leadership and project its core values like human rights, democracy and rule of law. In Obama’s speech on Wednesday, he explained his view that “these ideals that we affirm are true. These ideals are universal.”

But while they may be universal for the United States, they are not for China, Russia or Saudi Arabia. These nations have conflicting ideals of their own that they won’t water down — and in today’s world, they are sufficiently powerful that the West cannot convince or force them to do so.

In this context, Western powers can either cling to their values within a global framework — with little success. Or they can cling to their values in a narrower coalition of the like-minded, although it’s much harder to bring about a global result.

But when it comes down to the choice of doing “global and ineffectual,” or “limited with coherent leadership,” the latter is the lesser of two evils. We need to learn that lesson, both in terms of how we organize coalitions of countries with aligned interests and ideals, and in terms of how we brace for global shocks.

It was aspirational to ever invite Russia into the G7. It is aspirational to expect global climate summits to achieve breakthroughs, or the G20 to operate cohesively. The consequences for continuing to try (and fail) to solve problems primarily through global political frameworks are growing larger. The sooner we acknowledge this and focus on more exclusive partnerships, the more effective we will be.

PHOTOS: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

U.S. President Barack Obama poses with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (R) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (L) upon his arrival at the European Council in Brussels March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir 



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Yes, let’s have an exclusive ruling partnership of China, Russia, Brazil and India. They represent more of the world.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

Yes, let’s have an exclusive ruling partnership of China, Russia, Brazil and India. They represent more of the world.

Posted by pyanitsa | Report as abusive

What G7 values? In practice, the countries of the G7 have shown their values in:

Value A) Transatlantic slave trade, buying, selling, beating, raping, killing millions of black Africans after shipping them accross oceans

Value B) colonialism in Africa, Asia, Americas

Value C) European World Wars

Value D) the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, and mentally ill people during the 30′ and 40′

Value E) The nuking of civilian population of two major cities in the world (after the war was won)

Value F, G, H, I …) Panama, Grenada, Chile of Pinochet, Iran of Mossadegh, Vietnam and chemical weapons, Laos, Iraq, Libya, Syria…

Reuters, buzzzzzzz off!

Posted by mcanterel | Report as abusive

Is poverty eradication, Not a core human right ;)) ??
If yes, G7 has been a colossal failure, If Not Downright exploitative !! For Rule of law : Who’s laws, set by whom and when ;)?? Wake up G7!! Help Make A Collaborative, Stronger, multi-polar world, NOT A Hegemonic hypocritical one!!

Posted by RK_France | Report as abusive

It seems that Mr. Bremmer, in a roundabout way, is saying that the days of the US (and its European lackeys) running a worldwide petro-empire are over. Nations with a Marxist orientation, like Syria and Crimea, can no longer be brought into the empire by wars and coups.

A well-written piece, Mr. Bremmer. Candid, yet euphemistic.

Posted by UrDrighten | Report as abusive

“Global and ineffective” is best when it comes to the great military empire of today, the USA.

Otherwise, the foreign policy elites in Washington will have us living in an endless re-wind of the G.W. Bush years.

A sort of nightmarish Neocon Groundhog Day of shock-and-awe bombings, invasions and wars all around the world.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

This editorial (not news) is too pessimistic. The west has no defense treaty with the Ukraine, so the response thus far has been appropriate. Russia is not a superpower, and is highly dependent upon US technology [the US has transferred the most technology to the Russian Federation and invested the most]. The transition to less dependence upon Russian natural gas started after Russia’s abusive incursion into Georgia, and is now accelerating. Realignments between super-powers take time. The next move for Russia will be to seize the southern coast line of Ukraine, and this will lead to tighter sanctions. The US loses nothing by sanctions, but Russia loses disproportionately more. Eventually a new equilibrium will be reached, but further investment in Russia will decline, hurting its economy even more. Russia is happy to pay this cost for some extra real estate, even though it already is the largest country in the world and does not need more real estate. The Ukrainians do not like the crony system in which government leaders and insiders siphon off billions and leave the populace to pay off the debt, and this will not change. Russia has claimed a temporary “victory” of sorts, but has now lost all of the goodwill it had after the Olympics; it now is seen as a piranha state, not to be trusted. It does not care, but will learn to care as its economy continues to suffer, and doors once open now are closed to them. Would YOU invest in Russia now?

Posted by WestFlorida | Report as abusive

@jrp The U.S. can’t win on the Ukraine. If we had responded to Russia militarily or by supplying weapons to stop the Russians in Crimea, guys like you, would have condemned us. So, instead we send $14B in IMF money, of which the U.S. is the largest contributor, and you condemn the U.S.

We could use those same billions to rebuild our infrastructure in this country, but again guys like you, would condemn us for not being a “world citizen”, blame Bush, or talk about how the U.S. should intervene.

Russia is in decline, and Ukraine is economic and political basket case. Face it–there is nothing there worth expending U.S. dollars. It’s a western Europe problem–let the German and French figure it out. And, we should also reduce our military presence in Western Europe as well–no need to subsidize wealthy countries who refuse to fund their own defense. I can only hear the howls now….about how the U.S. has abandoned them. Oh, the inhumanity. There is sufficient wealth in western Europe to fund whatever they see fit.

After 60 years (since the end of WW2) your sugar daddy can see your age spots–you are no longer the prize you used to be. Sorry, you’re on your own.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Why all the bitching by the news outlets? Ukraine is a win-win for all:

1) Russia gets Crimea.

2) Crimeans get to be Russian.

3) Ukrainian tire-burners in Kiev successfully got rid of their Russian-backed president (which is what their demand was).

4) NATO adds Ukraine to its membership.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Even the much touted fracking method one day in the future sucks dry all the newly discovered US gas fields. During the process polluting ground water, making it unpalatable. So much so, that in some cases you can light it (water flowing from the tap) with an open flame. As the globe’s non-renewable natural resources are used up, eventually exhausted, Russia’s natural riches become increasingly more attractive for future multi billionaires to help themselves, discover it and get filthy rich. Spreading that elusive democracy and the promise of freedom in Ukraine, takes them one step closer to that pot of gold.

Posted by boreal | Report as abusive

Well written!

And BTW, will the IMF $ mostly be used to pay past due bills for Russian gas anyways?

Posted by robb1 | Report as abusive

I remember when it was called G-8. How I long for the good old days!

Posted by FifthColumFirst | Report as abusive

Oh, we here in the west are sssooo free. They hate us for our freedoms and values and our oh so free markets and capitalism. Our protections of human rights and our freedom. We are oh so free here in the freeland of the west oooooh.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

1. There were no real sanctions on Russia by UE and US and there will be none more that matter anything. The worst sanction was Obama canceling Putin from his friends at Facebook.
2. G7 is dead for about 10 years and has much less clout than G20 for more than 5. Lets look at composition: Canada and Japan are US boys, no independent economic or military policy, waste of time for Putin to meet them. Germany, Italy, France and UK are each year more dependent on Russian natural gas and oil, Putin has leverage over them, and it is larger when he meets with them bilaterally.
3. UN resolution on Crimea was a show of growing clout of China and Russia in Eurasia. Only a few US allies/vasal states from continental Eurasia dared to back it: South Korea, Bhutan, Thailand, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar.
4. It is not technically possible in current geopolitical situation for Europe to diversify out of Russian natural gas. UE knows it. Russia at present controls all land routes to Europe. South Stream will be developed fast (Crimea was needed for this purpose), Syrian route is secured by Russia since 2013. Natural gas will flow by pipelines to Europe only from Russia. The only other source is expensive LNG from Middle East.
5. China will become major importer of natural gas from Russia in 10 years.
6. US is one of major net importers of natural gas in the world: 53 bcm imported in 2013, significant rise from 2012 level of import. Any information that US will support any country by its exported natural gas is delusion.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

@Wantunbiasednew: Your numbers conveniently left out U.S. reserves of natural gas (most of our ‘imports’ are just futures swaps with Canada). Our reserves are in the ground and 35% of the natural gas wells in America are currently shut in by the operators, awaiting higher prices In addition, your numbers fail to include the fact that Russia ‘imports’ nearly as much natural gas as we do: 44 bcm.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@AlkalineState: Russia imported about 44 bcm in 2012 AND exported 220 bcm, the NET EXPORTS are 176 bcm (production 592 bcm, consumption 416 bcm). United States is NET IMPORTER of 53 bcm in 2013 (production 685 bcm and consumption 737 bcm).
44% of 2013 US gas output is shale gas. Shale gas wells output diminishes very fast (in months).
For instance for Marcellus Play (the largest shale play in US, 41% of all US shale gas production in 2013) monthly decrease of production form legacy wells is over 2%. For other formations it is similar.
That means output from all existing US shale gas wells HALVES in 2.5 years. So even if frantic drilling continues in US, the shale dream will be over in 10, maximum 15 years. Of course technology is not mature. They still use more pressure and more abrasive chemicals, but it certainly have its limits.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive