- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — Buoyed by soaring oil prices, Russia emerged from this week’s Group of Eight summit with a renewed sense of a confidence and a fresh resolve to push its agenda on the global stage, observers said.

The attitude was evident in President Vladimir Putin’s proud strut as he took the stage for yesterday’s closing press briefing.

“It is obvious that Russia’s growing economic potential allows it to play a more significant role in global developments,” Mr. Putin said during the briefing, reflecting the assessment of his supporters that the summit restored Russia’s place among the world’s major powers.

Russia’s yearlong presidency of the G-8 — which includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — got off to an inauspicious start last winter when Moscow cut off natural gas supplies to Western Europe during a pricing dispute with Ukraine.

Criticism mounted in the following months, with prominent Western officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, accusing Mr. Putin of rolling back democratic reforms and bullying its neighbors in the former Soviet Union.

But democracy was hardly mentioned at the summit. In the rare instances when the issue was raised, Mr. Putin fired back at critics, telling President Bush that Russia “wouldn’t want the same kind of democracy as in Iraq,” and taking a swipe at British Prime Minister Tony Blair witah a reference his Labor party’s cash-for-peerages scandal.

“We faced a lot of criticism from different parts of the world, but in the end we managed to show that Russia’s place in the G-8 is quite natural, that it’s impossible to tackle vital problems without Russia,” said Dmitry Peskov, a senior Kremlin spokesman.

Mr. Putin seized on the Middle East crisis to project Russia’s new global influence, telling journalists repeatedly that only Russian objections had prevented G-8 leaders from explicitly blaming the violence on Syria and Iran. And while Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair strongly defended Israel’s right to respond militarily to the kidnappings of its soldiers, Mr. Putin argued that Israel’s response had been disproportionate.

“The Russians have clearly had a recovery of confidence,” a senior Western diplomat at the summit said. “A few years ago, this was a country in chaos that was derided in many parts of the world. Now there’s stability, some progress and dramatic economic growth. It’s getting a lot more respect.”

While the Middle East dominated the headlines, the summit issued statements on all the items on Russia’s agenda, including energy security, health and education.

An upbeat statement on international energy cooperation was considered an especially sweet victory for oil- and gas-rich Russia, which managed to avoid any promise to open its energy markets or break up the export monopoly of gas giant Gazprom.

John Kirton, the director of the University of Toronto’s G-8 Research Group, said there was no doubt the summit was a major success for the Russians.

“They proved they could run an up-to-snuff summit that was as good, if not better, than their partners had before,” he said.

In concrete terms, Mr. Kirton said, the summit was among the most productive in the G-8’s history.

“St. Petersburg has made summit history by delivering more commitments, more codified collective decisions, than any other summit before,” he said.

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