The headlines from the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg in mid-July are likely to focus on whether the assembled leaders can induce Iran to halt its nuclear weapons programme. A muted, though no less important, question is whether the seven guests can persuade their host, Vladimir Putin, to reverse Russia's drift toward authoritarianism and thereby justify its continued membership in a group that supposedly consists of "major industrial democracies".
Back in 1998, leaders of what was then the G7 invited Boris Yeltsin to join their ranks. They hoped to encourage Russia to keep moving toward building a pluralistic political system, strengthening the rule of law, ensuring an independent judiciary and integrating with the global economy—principles that were written into joint statements. Four years later, with George W. Bush in the White House and Mr Putin in the Kremlin, the G8 agreed to hold its 2006 meeting in Russia.
Western leaders, however, soon began regretting that decision. Mr Putin put an increasingly heavy accent on the first word in two of his signature phrases: "managed democracy" and "dictatorship of law". The jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003 and the systematic dismantling of his Yukos oil group smacked of an all-too-familiar Soviet practice: the arbitrary use of political power to punish those the regime sees as enemies. Russians began proclaiming their country an "energy superpower", and the government stepped up use of its oil and gas resources to pressure its neighbours.
Mr Bush, while aware of the growing problem, was slow to speak out publicly or even press his concerns vigorously in private with Mr Putin. That was largely because Mr Bush hoped to keep the focus of US-Russian relations on co-operation in the war on terror.
When Mr Bush hosted the G8 in Sea Island, Georgia, in 2004, he settled for a summit statement that was silent on the political and civic values that supposedly unite the group. So did other leaders, including Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, whose warm relationship with Mr Putin blinded him to the ominous trends in Russia.
Over the past year, a bipartisan chorus in the US Congress has urged suspension of Russia from the G8 until "the Russian government ends its assault on democracy and political freedom". In February, Senator John McCain, a presumed aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, told the annual Wehrkunde security policy conference in Munich that he "seriously question[ed] whether the G8 leaders should attend the St. Petersburg summit". Mr Bush hoped to inoculate himself against criticism for going to St Petersburg by letting Dick Cheney, his vice-president, deliver a blistering critique of Mr Putin in May. But with Mr Putin in the chair, it is highly unlikely the summit will tackle the issue of Russia's current course.
Fortunately, the G8 has another chance next year, when the leaders meet in the German seaside resort of Heiligendamm. Having grown up in what used to be East Germany, Angela Merkel, the chancellor, has a more hard-headed view of Russia than had Mr Schröder. She can speak to Mr Putin in Russian as fluently as he could talk to Mr Schröder in German. On her first Moscow visit, Ms Merkel made a point of meeting beleaguered reformers and democrats to show that the west had not forgotten them.
Ms Merkel will have as much influence over the agenda next year as Mr Putin has this year. The meeting could be used to review implementation of various norms of domestic governance and international behaviour that all eight governments have agreed to over the past 15 years.
Quiet diplomacy before the summit could be aimed at defining what those joint obligations should mean in practice, as well as timetables, benchmarks and mechanisms for monitoring progress. The task the G8 sets itself for 2007 and beyond can be put in terms of delivering on members' existing commitments. That way, the Russians cannot legitimately complain of being subjected to new demands or discriminatory conditions. But for Ms Merkel to take on this task, she must have support from other western leaders, not least Mr Bush.
Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former US deputy secretary of state, is co-author, with Sir Roderic Lyne and Koji Watanabe—respectively, former British and Japanese ambassadors in Moscow—of Engaging With Russia: The Next Phase, a report of the Trilateral Commission, launched today at Chatham House in London; see the report at: www.trilateral.org/library/stacks/Engaging_With_Russia.pdf