"I don't see what else could dominate the agenda," said Vivien Pertusot, head of the Brussels office for the French Institute of International Relations.
In March, the U.S. and its most important allies retaliated for Putin's military occupation and subsequent annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula by suspending Russia's membership in what had been the G-8 club of rich countries. They also nixed Putin's plan to hold the meeting in Sochi, the city Russia lavished billions on to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, and shifted the venue to a building in the Belgian capital instead.
At the time, Obama promised to "impose a greater cost" on Putin and his country if the confrontation over Ukraine escalated. But beyond a ringing statement of unity and a stiffly worded communique directed at Russia from the Brussels gathering of Obama and the leaders of Canada, Japan, Britain, France, Germany and Italy, little more is expected.
"Frankly, among the Europeans there is not the appetite for further sanctions and pushing Putin into a corner," said Judy Dempsey, editor-in-chief of Carnegie Europe's Strategic Europe blog.
Though G-7 leaders are expected to present a unified front in public, their positions on Russia diverge significantly. The United States has decided that Russia will remain a strategic challenge unless and until it's possible to rebuild trust between Moscow and Washington. On Wednesday, Obama announced new military measures meant to reassure NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe worried about what Russia may be planning next.
The French approach is different. They want their increasingly good business relations with the Russians to continue, and are hoping for support from Putin's government to manage other global security concerns, like Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. France is building warships for the Russian Navy, and French company Total recently signed a deal with Lukoil of Russia for shale oil exploration.
A senior German official maintained this week that the U.S. and its European allies have always "proceeded in parallel" on the actions to take again Russia, including the imposition of targeted asset freezes and travel bans. But Pertusot said Germany, with strong political ties to Moscow and dependence on Russia for around a third of its natural gas and crude oil supplies, has been notably reluctant to do anything that might make Putin and his entourage "feel annoyed."
Though the Russian president isn't coming to Brussels, he has been invited to France for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion this Friday, and is expected to meet then with three G-7 leaders: French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. British officials said Russia's actions since Ukraine's May 25 presidential elections — muted condemnation and a pullback of troops from Ukraine's border — are better than some had feared, and they hope Putin will use those meetings to demonstrate a more positive, engaged attitude.
After Wednesday's dinnertime conversation focusing on foreign policy, G-7 leaders on Thursday will discuss the the world economy, energy and climate policy and development