MILAN — Whether the West likes it or not, an old question has returned on the global stage: whether or not to reconstitute the former G8 by inviting Russia back in. The decision rests with Italy, the current holder of the rotating presidency of the Group of Seven and the host, in May, of the next G7 summit, to be held in Taormina, Sicily.
Any invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin must be discussed among the group's members in a debate squaring realpolitik against loyalty to coherent principles such as non-aggression. Regardless of the potential risks, it is in Italy's interest to try bringing Russia back into the fold.
The Sicily summit will come just a few months after Barack Obama's exit from the international arena, at a time when the very concept of Western unity is being questioned. The Western world's principles of common values and global governance are not shared by the world's larger emerging powers and "guided" democracies. The G7 has always considered itself the foremost protector of these values, with the admission of Russia in 1997 representing the final nail in the coffin of the Cold War.
The hope was that Russia's political and economic development could be shaped by Western principles. But Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 — a direct affront to the unifying principles of international law — provoked Russia's expulsion from the group. Russia's ejection was not just a political sanction but a moral reproach, with the Obama administration at the forefront of this decision.
It's not surprising that there is significant resistance to Russia's readmission, especially given Obama's insistence that liberal values and open markets be preserved at all costs. His successor, Donald Trump is still an unknown quantity, and it's unclear whether he values a united Western community as much as his predecessors did. He may have a surprise in store.
The question of resetting relations with Moscow has also created rifts within the European Union. The crucial importance of energy supplies is more vital to many EU members than pan-European solidarity in the face of Russian aggression, and Eastern European countries are further divided on the need to engage with Putin. Franco-German efforts to monopolize relations with Russia and resolve the conflict in Ukraine failed to form a coherent European foreign policy.
There are many countries that could take the lead in establishing warmer relations with Russia, a phenomenon potentially accelerated by the inauguration of the Putin-friendly President Trump. Germany is in pole position and will already host the Russian president at the G20 summit in Hamburg in July.
Regardless of whether Russia returns to the fold or not, a more fundamental question remains: How can the West encourage a transgressor of international law to change its conduct? The imposition of sanctions is an accepted method of punishing violators like Putin, but they require unity between the United States and its European allies. With the Trump administration this can no longer necessarily be counted on, or the response may take different forms than the comprehensive sanctions that existed before.
Despite Western vetoes and attempts at its exclusion, Russia has continued to present the West with its own facts on the ground: the Syrian crisis is a notable example. If President Trump refuses to toe the European line of sanctions against Moscow and instead chooses to deal with Putin on the basis of common interests, any resulting Russian-American agreement would bypass European capitals completely.
It's in Europe's interest, therefore, to seek common ground with Russia and accelerate a rapprochement. Rather than emboldening his behavior, inviting Putin to the summit in Taormina would present an invaluable opportunity for Italy to take the lead in solving global issues facing both the West and Russia.