Russia-West tensions soar as Putin quits G20 summit
MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
Russia's President Vladimir Putin goes through his notes before the G20 leaders in the Red Chamber at Parliament House during the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane in this November 15, 2014 picture provided by G20 Australia. REUTERS PhotoVladimir Putin's early exit from a G20 summit in Australia after an icy reception from world leaders may further stoke Russia-West tensions and lead to renewed fighting in Ukraine, analysts said.
Western leaders piled huge pressure on the Russian strongman at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, with host Tony Abbott calling on Putin to "atone" for the shooting down of Malaysian flight MH17 over rebel-held east Ukraine and Britain's David Cameron branding him a "bully".
Analysts said Putin's apparent anger at his treatment by his fellow leaders could worsen the crisis in Ukraine.
"If he is leaving irritated, just wait for the fighting in Ukraine to intensify," independent analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told AFP.
In eyebrow-raising remarks, Putin, who prides himself on his stamina, cited the "need to sleep" and a long flight home as his reasons for leaving the summit earlier than planned.
Despite the baking heat in Brisbane, the chill in the air was unmistakable.
Australian tabloid The Courier-Mail demanded apologies from Putin, while Russian media complained that Western leaders went out of their way to ostracise the Russian president.
"At the G20 Australian hosts tried to humiliate Vladimir Putin in every way possible," pro-Kremlin magazine Expert said online.
Armed with the Forbes magazine title of "the most powerful man in the world" and domestic approval ratings over 80 percent, Putin arrived in Australia with a flotilla of Russian navy vessels in tow.
The G20 summit had been expected to be the Russian president's toughest foreign visit since the start of the standoff between the Kremlin and the West over Russia's support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Putin and the West had not been expected to reach a breakthrough over the Ukraine crisis, yet no one had expected hostilities to break out into the open.
In recent years Putin has habitually stolen the limelight at international gatherings, setting himself up as an outsider at G8 gatherings as the Kremlin agenda grew increasingly at odds with Western interests.
But the walkout in Brisbane took tensions to a whole new level.
Analysts said that Western leaders' increasingly vocal criticism of the Kremlin's policies and Putin's abrupt departure indicate that neither side was interested any longer in maintaining even a patina of civility.
Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Kremlin-connected Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, warned that Western criticism might just force Putin to harden his position.
"We are witnessing a further radicalisation of the positions of some Western countries, first and foremost North America and Australia, which is the summit host," Lukyanov said on Russian radio.
"There is no desire on their part to somehow soften this, on the contrary this is spilling into the public sphere. Well, the reaction is predictable -- Russia will also harden its stance."
Going into the summit, US President Barack Obama said Russia's aggression against Ukraine was "a threat to the world" and called the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over the rebel-held east of the ex-Soviet country in July "appalling".
Australia's prime minister Abbott accused Putin of trying to relive the "lost glories of tsarism".
Putin was also apparently rebuffed by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper when the Russian leader approached him to shake hands.
"Well, I guess I'll shake your hand, but I only have one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine," said Harper, quoted by Canadian media.
The British premier accused Putin of undermining Russia's interests.
"You're not serving that country if, at the end of the day, the result is an economy under pressure, banks that can't raise money, a falling ruble, a stock market under pressure," Cameron was quoted as saying by British media.
The West this week accused Russia of sending fresh military hardware into eastern Ukraine, fuelling fears of a return to all-out conflict, and threatened Moscow with new sanctions if the violence intensifies.
Russia denies its troops are on the ground in Ukraine.
"De-escalation did not pan out. The EU may introduce new sanctions against Russia," said Gazeta.ru.
Analysts also said Putin's walkout on the Western leaders would play well with his supporters back home.
"All the gestures of the Russian leader are aimed at the so-called Putin majority," Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Political Expert Group, told AFP.
He said Putin's attitude would be interpreted by his backers as: "What does Russia's national leader have to talk about with the rotten West?"
Kalachev also pointed out that by dispensing with diplomatic niceties Putin might be intentionally setting himself apart from other leaders.
"The more capricious, the more attention," he said.
Observers also pointed to Putin's charm offensive at APEC summit in Beijing ahead of the G20 where he caused an uproar by wrapping China's first lady Peng Liyuan in a shawl.
While some in Russia chalked up the gesture to Putin's old-school gallantry, others said it was the latest sign that the Russian leader considered himself above normal conventions.
"Vladimir Vladimirovich has his own style," journalist and former diplomat Alexander Baunov wrote for the liberal Slon.ru news website.
"This is also a hint at his own power."