The club that wants nothing to do with Russia
What a difference a quarter of a century makes. When I covered my first Group of 7 meeting in 1997 in Denver, it was the start of a new era. President Bill Clinton, the host, invited Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin to participate and renamed the meeting “the Summit of Eight”. From then on, Russia was part of the club and the G7 quickly became the G8.
Now, all these years later, it’s the G7 again and Russia is nowhere to be found for this year’s meeting in Hiroshima, Japan. He was expelled nearly a decade ago for attacking neighboring Ukraine, a symbol of Moscow’s isolation from the international community. Instead, it is Ukraine’s leader, President Volodomyr Zelensky, who is the guest of the world’s great democracies, sitting at the table where Vladimir V. Putin is no longer welcome.
This first summit with Russia in 1997 was memorable. Mr. Yeltsin was a complicated character. A hero for standing up to Soviet hardliners and bringing a form of democracy to Russia, imperfect as it was, Mr. Yeltsin was also a heavy drinker and an unpredictable guest. During a visit to Washington in 1995, he was found in the middle of the night standing in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the guest quarters of Blair House, mouthing his words and trying to hail a cab so he could get a pizza.
My memory of the Denver summit is that Mr. Yeltsin skipped the evening concert that Mr. Clinton had so carefully orchestrated after the official meetings. Aides claimed he was simply tired. Remembering Mr. Yeltsin’s fights with the bottle, others thought there might be a little more to it. At one point, the local hospital was put on alert by the Russian delegation, although in the end Mr. Yeltsin was not sent.
Escapades aside, it was a big deal for Russia to be included in the most exclusive club in the world, and even Mr. Putin, the KGB veteran who succeeded Mr. Yeltsin, seemed to like it. Mr Putin was so excited to host Russia’s first G8 meeting just outside his hometown of St Petersburg that he rebuilt a 1,000-room tsarist palace begun but never completed by Peter the Great. Mr. Putin added 20 more mansions around to house visitors when they finally arrived in 2006. I visited. It was spectacular.
Mr. Putin’s next chance to host, however, would never happen. Shortly before chairing a G8 meeting in Sochi in 2014, he launched his first invasion of Ukraine, prompting the rest of the club to expel Russia. Now Mr. Putin is outside and looking inside.