Co-authored by Hugh Jorgensen.

russia ukraine g20

What are the implications of Russia's action in the Ukraine for the G20?

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says she is considering refusing to engage with Russia over the agenda for this year’s G20 summit. As the immediate past chair of the G20, Russia is a member of the 'troika' and is entitled to have an input into the agenda for this year's G20 meetings.

The 'threat' of being barred from providing input into the G20's 2014 agenda is unlikely to raise a single Kremlin eyebrow, though depending on developments, it does indicate that Russia's attendance at the Brisbane Summit may become an issue. 

Some want to go much further than Bishop's proposed diplomatic cold-shoulder. With US Secretary of State John Kerry warning that Russia risks expulsion from the Group of 8, which is scheduled to have a summit meeting in Sochi in June, there has been a debate among commentators in the New York Times over 'The Group of 8 minus one?'. And Alan Alexandroff from the Munk School argues that 'the G20...needs to consider the inclusion of Russia.'

Russia was invited in 1998 by President Clinton to join the club of seven major industrial powers in order to help strengthen democracy and individual liberty in post-Soviet Russia. As Alexandroff notes, the idea of accelerating Russia's trajectory towards being a defender of democracy and free markets has not worked on Vladimir Putin.

One view is that because of Russia's actions in the Ukraine, and given its tenuous membership anyway, it should be thrown out of the G8.

William Inboden says Russia doesn't just belong in the prestigious G8 club. He argues that a high GDP alone does not a G8 member make; democratic governance matters also. Canada's Stephen Harper would appear to be of like mind, given his press conference outburst after last year's G8 summit, which was dominated by events in Syria: 'I don’t think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one. Let's be blunt, that’s what this is: the G7 plus one'. But the G8, like the G20, is an informal grouping and there are no membership criteria.

Another view is that it is time to disband the G8 in its entirety. David Bosco says the dissolution of the G8 would 'signal outrage' over Russia’s actions without causing much harm to international economic diplomacy, given that the G20 is well placed to continue such work. An interesting (and accurate) angle.

The alternative view can basically be summarised as 'Jaw-jaw is preferable to war-war'. By maintaining open lines of communication, Russia's continued inclusion may help to aver the growing sense of political isolation felt by Moscow

Moreover, any decision to exclude a country from either the G8 or G20 would have to be unanimous. If not, it could result in the breakup of the forum. The G7 countries would all have to agree not to go to the G8 summit in Russia this June. However, German officials have already signaled that such action would accomplish little. Europe and Germany have strong economic and energy ties with Russia – Gazprom alone supplied around 30% of Europe's gas in 2013.

In the case of the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia could say that Russia is not welcome to attend. But if this is not supported by all other members, they may also not attend, and that would effectively result in the break-up of the G20. Of note, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been keen to highlight 'the coincidence of Russia's and China's positions on the situation in Ukraine'.

The idea of threatening Russia's involvement in the G20 is a hollow one. Yet Julie Bishop's threat to exclude Russia from the troika arrangements, which in itself is of little meaning, would set a precedent. If (or when) political or security tensions arise between G20 members in future, the incumbent chair might call upon 'the Ukrainian precedent' and say this has implications for a particular country's involvement in the G20. If this approach gained momentum , it would likely lead to the demise of the forum.

Furthermore, while the G20 agenda is focused on economic issues, this does not mean foreign policy and strategic issues are ignored at summits. Witness the St Petersburg Summit last September, when the main topic of discussion was developments in Syria. There was domestic pressure for Obama not to attend because of the Snowden affair. Obama cancelled his trip to Moscow, but he did attend the G20 Summit. And just as well, because his attendance allowed what is reported to have been an open and frank discussion between leaders on Syria. Moreover if Obama had boycotted St Petersburg, it would have set a precedent with implications for the current debate over Russia's membership.

The bottom line is that it is not wise to use involvement in the G20 to signal displeasure with a country's actions.

It is best to keep lines of communication open and to use the G20 as an opportunity to address pressing global issues. Attendance at a G20 meeting does not and should not equate to an official endorsement of every policy of every other G20 participant. And while recognising that G20 leaders will talk about the main issues confronting the world when they meet – be they security, political or economic – it is still wise to keep the formal agenda of the forum focused on economic cooperation.

Photo by Flickr user President of the European Council.