Leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries convene their annual summit this weekend in Germany, where they are expected to discuss current crises, such as the wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and long-term issues like climate change and the economy.
For the second year, a key topic will be Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Russia was expelled from the group last year after it invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, and it continues to support, train and equip rebels in two eastern regions.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Thursday said Moscow has sent 9,000 troops into the area, but Russia denies the claim.
Fighting has flared in recent days, in violation of a February cease-fire, giving new urgency to the G-7 discussions.
U.S. President Barack Obama will be among the world leaders gathering at Castle Elmau, a luxury hotel in southern Germany, for two days of meetings beginning Sunday.
Ahead of the summit, the White House said Obama plans to urge his G-7 colleagues to maintain sanctions against Moscow for its "aggression in eastern Ukraine." White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged Thursday that economic pressure has not yet resulted in Russian President Vladimir Putin changing his "strategic calculus inside Ukraine."
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But the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine could be part of a broader Russian effort, said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank focused on security and defense.
"The real question about Russia," Eyal told VOA, "is whether it is simply a conflict about Ukraine or whether we are witnessing here something much deeper, whether we are witnessing a sort of a challenge to the territorial status quo in Europe."
That status quo was originally created by the victorious powers after World War II, including the Soviet Union. But when the USSR broke up 25 years ago, its satellite countries in Eastern Europe moved to forge ties with Western Europe, with many joining the European Union and NATO. Some former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, would like to do the same, and that appears to be what Putin is trying to resist.
China also a focus
China will also be part of the discussions. Some Western governments and Japan believe China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and its program to build and expand islands there, threaten vital shipping lanes. But China says its moves are legal, and some Western powers are reluctant to confront Beijing for economic reasons.
South China Sea Territorial Claims
"There is definitely a big divide in the G-7," Eyal said, "between countries like Germany, and increasingly Britain, who view China as a huge business opportunity, and countries like Japan or the United States, which view China also as a serious security challenge."
Eyal said the Chinese and Russian policies make for what he calls “a very old-fashioned agenda” for the G-7.
"The position of two big powers in the world is now again the subject of very serious discussion," he said. "In the case of Russia, the conflict is acute. In the case of China, the conflict is implied, but probably much more serious in the long term."
An analyst’s prediction
But at London’s King’s College, professor of international economy Leila Simona Talani said, "I really don’t think there will be any declaration about Russia and China, to be honest, because it is very divisive and this is not the context in which to take this kind of decision."
Talani said the G-7 tends to stick to issues where there is broad consensus, like the need to promote economic growth, advance the rights of women around the world and fight climate change, a key issue for the summit host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The chancellor said this week that industrialized countries bear "a special global responsibility" because of "overexploitation," and should use their technical know-how to find solutions and promote a "paradigm shift." She said the political will to do so is "greater than ever."
But Talani is skeptical. "The problem for me is that I don’t see the G-7 as a decision-making body," she said in an interview. "So, if they talk about this, it’s good for the media. Whether they will have an impact, I think, is a completely different issue."
G7’s value cited
Still, both Talani and Eyal say the G-7 is more important than it has been in a long time, partly because broader organizations, like the Group of 20 and the United Nations, don’t have the unity or the capability that these countries do.
"There was a moment at the beginning of the 2000s," Talani said, "that everyone believed, 'now is the time for all-inclusion, everyone will have to be part of the decision-making bodies of the global economy and, in general, of the globe.' But this, I don’t think, is happening."
"I have a feeling that we’re getting back to a situation in which the G-7 has got much more weight, even in the public debates, than the G-20," she said. "The real conflicts, like the ones in the Middle East, make the role of the superpowers more important because obviously these are the only ones who can tackle those kind of conflicts."
She said she can’t imagine any of the emerging countries of the G-20 confronting the militant Islamic State group.
Eyal calls the G-7 "an anachronistic organization." But he said, "It has remained important because other organizations are not functioning well. The G-7 is there as a point of reference, because there’s almost nothing else that can supplant it."
The group was created in 1975 to provide key leaders a chance to talk about world crises and long-term issues, particularly the economy. The original members were the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Canada joined the following year, and the European Commission president was invited a year later. Russia was a member from 1998 until just before last year’s summit.
Eyal said the economy should still be a key part of the G-7 talks.
"The top priority must be to get bigger coordination about providing an impetus for the global economy," he said, "about making sure that the euro zone remains united, about making sure that the dollar’s dominance on the global stage is unchallenged, which means putting our own houses in order, promoting an agenda of economic growth. It also means promoting an agenda of free trade."
He believes they will discuss those issues but won’t be able to avoid talking about the world’s hot spots.
"The communiqué will be about the broader issues facing the countries attending the G-7, but the reality is that the burning issues of the moment – the disarray in the Middle East, the question of nuclear proliferation – will be very much on the leaders' minds," Eyal said.
As always, the G-7 will meet amid tight security. But this time, the German hosts are particularly concerned because of the country’s active protest movement. Demonstrations have already started and are expected to continue throughout the summit on Sunday and Monday. Some protesters are camping out at a designated site near the summit’s heavily secured resort hotel.
The leaders will arrive on Sunday for two days of meetings, capped by a communiqué and news conferences Monday afternoon.