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Obama gets cold shoulder from Putin, but will seek backing elsewhere

The two presidents are at odds on Syria, among other issues, and the big chill in St. Petersburg illustrates their relationship.

September 05, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey, Sergei L. Loiko and Christi Parsons
  • Presidents Obama and Putin exchange greetings during a procession of world leaders at the gold- and cream-colored Konstantinovsky Palace in St. Petersburg.
Presidents Obama and Putin exchange greetings during a procession of world… (Eric Feferberg / AFP/Getty…)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President 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 Konstantinovsky Palace. Obama gestured toward the sunny sky 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 National Security Agency 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 Russia Today, a television network that broadcasts in English.

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 F. Kerry of lying to Congress about the situation in Syria.

White House officials privately doubt that Putin would support a strike.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, dismissed Putin's doubt 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." On whether the top U.S. diplomat was a liar, Rhodes said, "We certainly would side with Secretary Kerry in that back-and-forth."

Experts disagree on whether the relationship is as bad as it's been since the Cold War, or merely very bad.

Five years ago, after the war between Russia and Georgia, there was little dialogue between the United States and Russia, noted Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the 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 intention to "reset" the relationship. He was aided in large part by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, 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."

On Thursday, the White House announced that Obama would hold a "Civil Society Roundtable" with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists, a move sure to irritate Putin. Russia has banned "gay propaganda." Putin has defended the law, but the international outcry against it has been intense.

Obama attended a dinner Thursday night hosted by Putin where he expressed his concern to other leaders that the United Nations Security Council has been paralyzed in its response to the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Rhodes said the president hopes that some leaders will back calls for a military response. "We'd like to see an acknowledgment that, while the U.N. Security Council is the preferred course of action, that we cannot be paralyzed by the inaction of the Security Council either," Rhodes said.

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