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As G-7 prepares to meet, Putin scales back in eastern Ukraine

Expert says Kremlin has '€œlet the air out of the balloon,' but it may just be part of the Russian leader's long game

World leaders will gather in Brussels on Thursday to discuss global concern over energy, environment and trade. The meeting of the Group of Seven nations — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — was organized quickly in order to boycott a previously scheduled G8 meeting set to take place in Russia this week.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already brushed off the significance of the G-8 in March, when Moscow was barred from participating for its role in the Ukraine Crisis, calling it an “informal club,” lacking membership cards.

“If our Western partners believe the format has exhausted itself, we don't cling to this format,” Lavrov told reporters at The Hague. “Many issues are discussed at that platform [G-8], but by and large there are many other platforms.”

Steven Fish, a professor of comparative politics at the University of California, Berkeley, and Reuters journalist David Rohde sat with Al Jazeera’s Thomas Drayton to discuss whether Russia’s leadership actually cares about its expulsion from the international summit.  Their conversation was part of Al Jazeera’s regular Sunday night segment “The Week Ahead.”

“[Vladimir] Putin has really valued his own and his country’s international status and his own status as a statesman” Fish said of Russia's president. “This exclusion from the G-8 is a pretty big deal to him—he cares about international prestige.”  

Last week, Putin announced further withdrawal of Russia’s roughly 40,000 troops from the border with Ukraine. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen called the move promising, but urged Russia to further help de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

“It’s not clear why Putin’s done it but he’s clearly taken a step back in Eastern Ukraine,” Rohde said. “Putin could just be waiting, but he’s cleverly sort of let the air out of the balloon as the G-7 meets.”

Professor Fish called Putin a “patient tactician,” who is still intent on molding a Eurasian century. Troop withdrawal, he said, is just Putin responding to a little bit of pushback while playing a longer game. Rohde said he worried that Putin’s campaign to build a stronger Russia could spiral out of control as it did in the former Yugoslavia with Serbia in the 1990s. Given the dangers of further escalation, Rohde and Fish agreed that an international strategy favoring containment was still the best way to handle Putin.

Though Russia won’t bet sitting at the table in Brussels this week, there are still issues — such as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan — that the West will need to engage with Russia on.

“It’s going to be very hard [for the G-7] to make progress on other big issues,” Fish said. “This is the kind of situation that calls for Churchills and not just for good managers.”

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