ROME — President Barack Obama and leaders of the world’s largest industrialized countries expelled Russia from the group until it “changes course” in Ukraine and formally canceled plans to attend an economic summit in Russia in June.
The move was aimed at Russian President Vladmir Putin’s plan to host the G-8 group of economic powers at Sochi, Russia, which would have been its second starring role on the world stage after this winter’s Olympics.
Instead, the G-7 leaders will meet in Brussels without Putin. At the same time, the group said it would not send its foreign ministers to a planned G-8 meeting in Moscow next month.
Though largely symbolic and falling short of new sanctions against Russia, the statement from the G-7 leaders pledged that they “remain ready” to intensify sanctions if Russia takes further action in Ukraine.
“This group came together because of shared beliefs and shared responsibilities. Russia’s actions in recent weeks are not consistent with them,” the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States said in what they called “The Hague Declaration.”
The president of the European Council and the president of the European Commission also signed the statement.
The leaders met at Obama’s urging at The Hague while attending a nuclear security summit.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Russia’s expulsion from the G-8 would be no “great tragedy,” Voice of Russia reported.
“If our Western partners think that this format has outlived itself, then so be it,” Lavrov told reporters after holding his first talks since the annexation with Andriy Deshchytsya, Ukraine’s interim foreign minister.
“At the very least, we are not trying to hold on to this format, and we see no great tragedy if it (the G-8) does not meet,” said Lavrov, who also met separately with Secretary of State John Kerry.
The move is symbolic but still important, Michael McFaul, a Stanford University-based Russia specialist who until recently was U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told reporters on a conference call.
McFaul said he believes Putin understands that he’s growing isolated and is bracing for a possible military engagement with NATO forces at some point.
“Right now I think he’s focused on consolidating and digging in for confrontation with the West,” McFaul said. “They fully expect it and that’s what they’re doing.”
The U.S. last week expanded a round of economic sanctions against Putin’s allies, but Obama is under pressure on the trip to convince European allies to step up their response. Many analysts say the sanctions won’t have much bite without Europe’s involvement, but many leaders there are leery, given Europe’s trade and energy reliance on Russia.
The statement from the leaders also notes that they’ve directed the G-7’s energy ministers to meet “to discuss ways to strengthen our collective energy security.”
And it warned that the leaders “remain ready to intensify actions including coordinated sectoral sanctions that will have an increasingly significant impact on the Russian economy, if Russia continues to escalate this situation.”
Obama, who has ruled out U.S. military intervention in Ukraine, spoke briefly to reporters earlier in the day after meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He said Europe and the U.S. are “united” in supporting the Ukrainian government .
And he added, “We are united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”
The Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, which carried an interview with Obama ahead of the visit, noted that Rutte has been among the leaders “reluctant to impose harsh actions” on Russia.
Rutte said the two condemned what he called a “flagrant breach of international law.”
Obama argued in the newspaper that there needs to be a cost to Russia.
“These aren’t easy choices,” he said. “We would have preferred it not come to this. But Russia’s actions are simply unacceptable. There have to be consequences. And if Russia continues to escalate the situation, we need to be prepared to impose a greater cost.”
Obama also met with President Xi Jinping of China – whose country is considered an ally of Russia _ at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Amsterdam. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama told Xi that although Beijing is unlikely to endorse sanctions, “China’s interest should be in working with us to de-escalate the situation in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “
Xi did say that China wants to see a “political resolution to the conflict,” Rhodes said, and the U.S. considers it “constructive” that China has refrained from supporting Russia’s move. China last week abstained from voting for a United Nations’ resolution criticizing Russia.
Before the meeting, Obama said the two leaders were able to work through “frictions” such as China’s human rights record and conflict over the South China Sea “in a way that’s constructive and hopefully will lead to resolutions and improved solutions for all parties concerned.”
Xi thanked Obama for calling to express sympathy over missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 _ two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese _ and for instructing U.S. agencies to join the search for the missing plane, which Malaysia’s prime minister said Monday had gone down in the southern Indian Ocean. Xi also prompted laughter when he noted he had a message from Michelle Obama, whom he and his wife met while the first lady was visiting China with her mother, Marian Robinson, and the Obamas’ daughters, Malia and Sasha.
“When I was bidding farewell to Michelle in Beijing, she asked me to formally convey to you her best regards,” Xi said.
Hannah Allam of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.