You go stand by yourself.

Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg

Putin-Bashing at G-20 Meeting Was Juvenile

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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At the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia, over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin was slighted in numerous ways, big and small. "I guess I'll shake your hand," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said to his face. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, in a public statement, made a mocking reference to the Russian Navy vessels parked off Papua New Guinea ahead of the summit: "I didn't feel it necessary to bring a warship myself."

The Australians sent a relatively insignificant official to meet Putin at the airport, and members of the Russian delegation complained about the hotel they were assigned. For the "family photo" of the attending world leaders, Putin was relegated to the very edge. He had breakfast alone, ignored by fellow attendees. 

Putin was the unpopular middle school student, hounded by his classmates. And all of it was puerile, faintly ridiculous and counterproductive.

The Russian president was careful not to admit he felt humiliated, calling all the attention to the snubs and slights "the media's virtual reality." Taking offense publicly would have been bad form, and Putin appeared determined to present an example of maturity to his jeering peers. Still, the thin excuses he offered for leaving early were clearly a reaction to the treatment. "I need at least four or five hours' sleep" he explained, though European leaders faced longer travel times. Photographs taken in Brisbane betrayed Putin's anxiety and dismay. 

What were the Western leaders trying to achieve? Putin already knows they resent his meddling in Ukraine. Not inviting him at all would have sent a clearer signal that the West is prepared to isolate Russia from international decision-making, as it once did the Soviet Union. That message would have been misleading, however, because, despite Putin's stubborn and increasingly ridiculous denials that Russia is taking action in Ukraine, the West still wants to talk with him: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker, not to mention the leaders of BRICS countries, all held meetings with him in Brisbane. Taunts and angry looks only make such conversations more difficult.

What's more, they boost Putin's popularity at home, reinforcing many Russians' conviction that their country's economic slowdown and even the oil price decline are products of Western hostility. "It's when Putin is in Russia that we have the right to disrespect or even hate him," journalist Dmitriy Sokolov-Mitrich wrote on Facebook. "Over there at the G-20 summit, he represents Russia. And this insulting attitude to the president is above all disrespectful toward us. Toward you and me personally."

The West is stupidly providing Putin with this beneficial publicity at a moment when the falling price of oil, and the ruble devaluation that inevitably follows it, threaten his popular support. Putin is then free to take out his frustration on Ukraine, already battered, penniless and ineptly ruled. Convinced that the government in Kiev consists of Western puppets, Putin will seek to punish the West by further torturing the weak nation.

Poking Putin plays well with Western voters. Canada, for instance, has an electorally important Ukrainian diaspora of 1.2 million people. But it's still bad policy, revealing that North American and European leaders don't know what to do about Russia's new role as a dangerous maverick. 

Granted, that's not easy to figure out. The line between appeasement and constructive behavior is thin, military confrontation is out of the question, and truly effective economic sanctions would hurt Europe too much. While they weigh policy alternatives, however, the leaders could maintain a civil dialogue. 

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the summit's host, set a good example. In October, he promised to "shirtfront" Putin -- the term for a rough takedown in Australian football -- for the death of his country's citizens on board the MH17 jet shot down over eastern Ukraine. It did not happen, though many Australians would have liked it. Instead, Abbott was unfailingly polite and even held a photo session with Putin and some cute koalas. No matter what flak Abbott may get for this at home, it makes sense to be cordial even with enemies -- until you're prepared to go to war against them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net