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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Relishing Russia's Return to World Stage

APPresident Vladimir Putin preparing to preside over a meeting Monday at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, which wrapped up without any breakthroughs.
STRELNA, Leningrad Region -- When President Vladimir Putin greeted the world's press crammed into a packed briefing room in the wee hours of Sunday, it seemed as if he could still barely believe his eyes at how far he -- and his nation -- had come.

"I would like to begin by thanking my colleagues, the leaders of the G8, for granting Russia the opportunity to organize this event in Russia and to act as president," he said, struggling to contain a pleased grin. "I am thankful, too, that they agreed to choose St. Petersburg this time as the setting for our work."

His appearance before the press that evening was the start of a weekend of talks that crowned Russia's return to the world stage as a major energy power 15 years after the Soviet Union's collapse.

An ebullient Putin led the summit, meeting with the press every day to drive home Russia's importance on the world stage. But with other G8 leaders at a loss to deal with Putin's swagger, observers say the summit could mark the apogee of the G8.

The world's leaders gathered for dinners in splendidly restored tsarist palaces in Putin's hometown and rushed to hold impromptu negotiations on how to end a flare-up of violence in the Middle East as Israel attacked Lebanon.

But as they tiptoed around concerns over Russian democracy in clear deference to their host, Putin took immediate advantage, sniping over U.S. President George W. Bush and attacking British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

When, during a briefing on Saturday, Bush bent over backward to accommodate Putin's insistence that Russian history made for different democratic traditions than in the West, Putin jumped in with a jibe at U.S. democracy-building in Iraq. "We certainly would not like to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq, I'll tell you that quite honestly," Putin said. The briefing followed apparently frosty bilateral talks with Bush.

Asked late Saturday by a reporter whether he would discuss democracy with Blair, Putin answered with a biting remark.

"There are also other questions. Questions, for example, connected with corruption. It will be interesting for us to hear about your experience with Lord Levy," he said, referring to the British Labour Party fundraiser at the center of an investigation into whether seats in the House of Lords were handed out in return for cash.

Blair was said to be privately fuming.

Apart from a real thunderstorm that lashed Strelna over the weekend, nothing could rain on Putin's parade, it seemed.

Meeting with the press twice after midnight and once again at the close of talks Monday afternoon, Putin made sure to use each occasion to drive home the importance of Russia's role. Each time he appeared he was greeted with applause by the media.

During a briefing in the early hours of Monday, he made sure to point out how Russia's position had changed the G8's understanding of global security. "Until now, energy security has been understood as stable supplies to the main consumers of energy resources. We have convinced our partners that energy security is a much broader issue and includes extraction, transportation and sales on energy markets," he said.

Commenting on an emergency communique hammered out over the weekend by the G8 in response to the escalating violence in the Middle East, Putin again said Russia had managed to change the way the situation was viewed. "This is the most vivid example of how we influence the situation," he said. "I won't go into details ... but if it had not been for the position of Russia [the resolution] would have been different. It would not have been as balanced as it is now."

Putin was at pains to point out that Russia's contacts in the Middle East with organizations condemned by the West, such as Hamas, put it in a position to broker deals with all sides.

"This is the advantage of Russia," he said. "We have not closed the way for talks with all participants of this conflict. And it seems to me the level of trust we have is fairly high with all countries [in the region]."

As fighting erupted over the weekend between Israel and its opponents in Lebanon, the standoff diverted attention away from questions on how the rest of the G8 viewed Putin's track record on democracy. It also distracted much of the world media's attention from what appeared to be considerable differences of opinion on the agenda forwarded by Russia on energy security, infectious diseases and education.

And as the leader of the world's most powerful country, Bush was caught sounding tired and crude over the crisis in the Middle East when an open microphone accidentally transmitted his conversation with Blair over a final lunch and photo opportunity Monday.

Putin hinted it was time to replace the system of international relations dominated by the countries of the West. Without explicitly saying the G8 should be further expanded to include the new Asian economic powerhouses of India and China, he said no economic issues could be dealt with properly without these countries' participation.

Indicating that such Western-built forums had had their day, Putin said: "After the collapse of the bipolar world, our world has not become safer. ... We do not have the tools and instruments to address the challenges of today.

"Here, we are developing the architecture for future international relations," he said.

As he closed the summit and left a briefing to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he couldn't help lingering for one moment longer in his place in the sun.

He stopped, took a last look at the press, and murmured "Do svidanya."