ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Barack Obama hopes to emerge from a two-day summit with some international support for a military strike on Syria, but his toughest reception will come from his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who chose not to meet him Thursday when he arrived at the airport.
Instead, three low-ranked officials went in Putin’s place. When the two finally said hello it was in a procession of world leaders at the gold- and cream-colored Konstantin Palace. Obama gestured toward the sunny skies as they shook hands. Putin did not look up. They smiled but quickly parted after their pleasantries.
In the days before the Group of 20 economic summit, the leaders appeared to soften their sometimes sharp rhetoric toward each other. But relations between them, already frayed by an impasse over Syria, were deeply strained by Putin’s refusal to extradite Edward Snowden, the former government security contractor who leaked details of U.S. surveillance programs.
It appears unlikely that Obama and Putin will meet formally. White House officials said Thursday that the two leaders would have opportunities for “interactions” on the sidelines. Obama canceled a one-on-one meeting in Moscow after Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, a decision that irked Putin.
“There is no doubt that our bilateral relations are experiencing not the best times,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a Russian television network.
In the run-up to his encounter with Obama, Putin sent mixed signals on Syria. He has said he would be open to a military strike on Syria if the U.S. could tie the alleged Aug. 21 poison gas attack in Damascus’ suburbs to President Bashar Assad’s military. But the Russian leader also made it clear that he had no confidence in U.S. intelligence reports. And, hours before Obama’s arrival, Putin accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of lying to Congress about the situation in Syria.
White House officials privately doubt Putin would support a strike.
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, dismissed Putin’s doubts that Assad’s forces launched a chemical weapons assault on Aug. 21. “There’s just a preponderance of evidence,” Rhodes said.
He said the United States would share its evidence with Russia, but called Putin’s speculation that opposition forces could have launched the attack “implausible theories.”
Experts disagree on whether the relationship is as bad as it’s been since the Cold War, or merely just very bad.
Five years ago, after the war between Russia and Georgia, there was little dialogue between the nations, noted Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution. “Relations are certainly I think in a difficult point now but you need to have some perspective to sort of appreciate that there’s a balance between areas where they differ but also some areas where cooperation continues.”
That dark period five years ago was part of what spurred Obama to declare his intentions to “reset” the relationship. He was aided in large part by Dmitry Medvedev, the former president whom the White House viewed as someone Obama could work with. Obama believes that Putin is “old world” and can “slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” as he said last month on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
In recent days, Putin has done little to conceal his animosity and suspicion of the United States, said Lilia Shevtsova, the head of the Russian politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“By sending on Thursday second- and third-rated underlings to meet President Obama at the airport, Putin behaved like a street bully who extends a welcome with one hand and slaps you in the face with the other,” she said. “The day before Putin did a similar ugly song-and-dance when at first he praised Obama and called the U.S.-Russian relations constructive and then within a few hours publicly called Kerry a liar.”
Obama plans to meet with China’s leader today but does not expect President Xi Jinping’s support for a U.S. strike. Rather, Obama is focused on his European allies. He will meet today with French President Francois Hollande.