The unsettling events of the last week in Ukraine have led many in the West to question the future of the G-8 and Russia’s role in a club that originally joined together the world’s advanced industrialized democracies. It may be helpful to recall how Russia became part of the group to begin with. Originally, the invitation to Russia to join the Group of Seven advanced industrialized countries was intended to encourage and incentivize Russian President Boris Yeltsin to continue a pro-Western course. President Bill Clinton first proposed the idea at a July 1994 G-7 meeting in Naples while attempting to persuade Yeltsin to withdraw Russian troops from the Baltic countries on schedule. As Clinton explained to his team: “It’s a pretty simple deal. We get ’em into the G-7 and they get out of the Baltics. If they’re part of the big boys’ club, they’ve got less reason to beat up on the little guys.”

As a beaming Yeltsin looked on, Clinton announced during his news conference in Naples, “As you know, this was a very important day in which President Yeltsin joined us as a full partner in the G-8 for political discussions.” Yeltsin responded that it was time for the West to “take that red jacket off the President of Russia.” At that time, the collection of countries was known as the Political Eight.

Three years later, Clinton felt an even more pressing need to charm Yeltsin by upgrading Russia’s role in the group. The United States was pushing to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic within NATO. Preparing to meet Yeltsin in the spring of 1997 in Helsinki, Clinton said privately, “It’s real simple. As we push ol’ Boris to do the right but hard thing on NATO, I want him to feel the warm beckoning glow of doors that are opening to other institutions where he’s welcome.”

Publicly at Helsinki, Clinton reported, “I am pleased to announce, with the approval of the other G-7 nations, that we will substantially increase Russia’s role in our annual meeting, now to be called the Summit of the Eight.”

Russia formally joined the G-8 as a full member the following year, but not everyone in the Clinton administration was happy about it. National Security Adviser Tony Lake worried that Russian membership was “deluding them and us.” And it seemed nonsensical to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and his team to include Russia in a group that was above all designed to coordinate the international economy among the world’s leading democracies.

But in the spring of 1999, Clinton’s push for Russian inclusion paid off. As Yeltsin braced for increasing isolation over the ongoing Kosovo war at the upcoming Cologne G-8, scheduled to take place in mid-June, Russia put the pressure on Slobodan Milosevic to end the war, thus closing the books on what at the time was a major crisis in relations between Russia and the West.

Fifteen years later, the G-8 no longer serves any obvious purpose. After all, the 2008 financial crisis illustrated how excluding countries like Brazil, India, China, Turkey and Indonesia from a global coordinating body would be neither feasible nor wise, and thus the G-20 was born. That alone should have signaled the end of the G-8 – or even the G-7 – but it was not the case.

Russian actions in Ukraine should result in the G-7 countries declining to attend the scheduled G-8 meeting in Sochi and calling it a day. There is no reason for Russia to have pride of place in an organization otherwise composed of the United States, Japan, Canada and four leading European nations. While the original invitation might have made it easier for Yeltsin to accept Western policies he did not favor, Putin does not value U.S. or European opinion in quite the same way. Serving neither a clear political nor economic purpose, it is time to lay the G-8 to rest.

James Goldgeier is dean of the School of International Service at American University, co-author of “Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War,” (on which this post draws) and co-director of the Bridging the Gap Project.


Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage: