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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Doubts Pursue Putin to G8 Summit

President Vladimir Putin is set to arrive at the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, on Wednesday, even as Russia's contribution to the group increasingly comes into question.

Putin is due to take over the largely symbolic chairmanship of the G8 -- the world's seven leading industrialized democracies plus Russia -- for the first time next year, an honor that critics claim Moscow does not deserve because of its faltering commitment to democracy and still relatively small economy.

The Kremlin has responded to such criticism by saying that Russia, the world's largest oil producer last year, is indispensable to the G7 for its wealth in natural resources. Putin has eagerly thrown his support behind the current G8 chairman, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has topped the summit agenda with issues innocuous to the Kremlin: poverty in Africa and climate change.

As Russia looks forward to hosting next year's summit, however, some observers are already casting a pall over the party.

"Russia is not one of the world's leading economic powers -- the original and still most important criterion for membership. Its influence on global affairs has declined to near insignificance. And its standing as a democracy, never convincing, is at its lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union 14 years ago," said Bobo Lo, a former Australian diplomat and Russia expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.

U.S. President Bill Clinton expanded the G7 -- Britain, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada, France and the United States -- to include Russia in 1997 in the hope of fostering democracy and free markets.

But Moscow has never been fully accepted in the club of the rich. Its finance minister and Central Bank chief are mere observers at G7 meetings and have no say in drafting decisions.

Russia's economy is smaller than Spain's and China's, and neither of those countries is in the G8. But Russia commands vast oil and gas reserves at a time when energy prices are reaching unprecedented heights.

Last week, unidentified senior Canadian and German officials told Reuters that oil prices would be discussed at Gleneagles -- possibly the only issue at the summit where Russia could make a difference.

"We are as necessary to the G7 as they are to us," Igor Shuvalov, Putin's liaison to the organization, told journalists in Moscow last week. "We are prepared to guarantee stable energy supplies to our partners to secure their stable development for decades ahead."

At a meeting in Kaliningrad with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der on Sunday, Putin promised that "energy security" would top the agenda of next year's G8 summit in St. Petersburg.

But Putin's critics say that his government has failed to increase supplies and stabilize prices. Instead, it has scared off new oil investment by strengthening the state's role in the energy sector.

"The U.S. and Western Europe have been trying to position Russia as an alternative to OPEC for years," said Katinka Barysch, an analyst at the Center for European Reform in London. "But the fact is oil output growth is stagnating, investment in energy has declined, oil exports are falling and [gas giant] Gazprom is getting ever more inefficient and intransparent."

Barysch said Russia might also have exhausted its usefulness on the one other issue where it could help the West: acting as an intermediary with pariah states like North Korea, Iran and Syria.

But the West's relations with Iran, which just elected a conservative Islamist president, and North Korea have reached a stalemate that even Russia cannot break.

"How much leverage does Russia really have over North Korea? Even the Chinese admit they cannot do much," Barysch said.

In fact, Moscow's close relations to countries that the United States has identified as "rogue states" could also be a liability. Washington suspects that Iran is developing nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian reactor, which Moscow has helped construct.

"Let's be clear: The Russian president has worked with the United States in the war on terrorism or international nonproliferation efforts only when he thought that cooperation advanced Russian national interests -- and never to do [U.S. President George W.] Bush a favor," Michael McFaul, a Russia specialist at Stanford University's Hoover Institute, wrote in an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in May.

Perhaps it's no surprise then that Putin latched on to Blair's Gleneagles priorities of African aid and the need to reduce greenhouse gases.

Moscow signed the Kyoto protocol on global warming in November and has pledged to forgive $2.2 billion owed to it by the poorest African countries -- money it is unlikely to see again anyway.

"Those are issues that are relatively uncontroversial for President Putin and the Russian government to address," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.

Putin's nightmare scenario is if anyone at Gleneagles openly questions his right to be there, Kuchins said.

As Russia is poised to take over the group's chairmanship, the opposition to its presence in the G8 is getting shriller.

In February, seven U.S. senators introduced a bipartisan resolution urging Bush to suspend Russia from the G8, citing Putin's "selective prosecution of political opponents, suppression of free media" and military abuses in Chechnya. A similar resolution has been introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives.

"In 2003, I warned of a 'creeping coup' in Russia against the forces of democracy and market capitalism," Senator John McCain, one of the authors of the resolution, said at the time. "The coup is no longer creeping -- it is galloping."

Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the International Affairs Committee in the Federation Council, called Western politicians attempting to oust Russia from the G8 "odious."

"The leaders of all the countries that are part of [the G7] realize that without Russia, the club's existence is impossible," Margelov said in an e-mail.

"Russia holds all the energy cards at the moment. Any leader whose country has strategic interests in energy has to engage with Russia," said Roland Nash, head strategist at Renaissance Capital.

While it is virtually unthinkable that Western leaders at Gleneagles would criticize Putin publicly, foreign policy experts said they expected them to voice concerns about an erosion of Russia's democracy "in private."

"Given the decline in the importance of the UN Security Council, membership in the G8 is absolutely essential to buttress Russia's claim to being one of the 'great powers' and to be seen as playing an active role in shaping the global agenda," said Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow for strategic studies at the Nixon Center in Washington. "This is especially important since China and India -- rising powers in their own right -- are not part of the G8."

That's not to say that the West will be successful in using the forum of the G8 to nudge Putin along, Lo said.

"The Kremlin will continue to profess its commitment to democratic principles, a transparent market economy, civil society and the rule of law," he said. "But it will act as it sees fit and remain unresponsive to outside pressure, including from the G8."