Syria Differences Magnifying Frayed Obama-Putin Relations
Obama heads to the summit in St. Petersburg tomorrow with his call for a military strike dominating the theme of jobs and prosperity set by host Putin, who backs Syria with arms and opposes the use of force against his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. president said today in Stockholm that the credibility of the community is on the line in the confrontation with Assad. At a news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeld, Obama said there is a longstanding international consensus against the use of chemical weapons and a failure to act would erode the norm.
“Are we going to try to find a reason not to act?” he said, hours before a Senate panel was set to start debate on a measure authorizing Obama to use force. “If that’s the case, I think the world should admit it.”
At almost the same time, Putin was in Moscow was decrying the U.S. move to action.
“Anything outside the framework of the UN Security Council is aggression, other than self-defense,” Putin said following a meeting with human rights activists at the Kremlin. “What Congress and the Senate are doing now is essentially legitimizing aggression. This is unacceptable.”
Obama was in Sweden as a substitute for a one-on-one meeting with Putin in Moscow before the G-20 gathering. The White House made the scheduling switch after Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to fugitive former security contractor Edward Snowden.
Snowden’s asylum came on top of differences over trade, human rights, missile defense and approaches to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Syrian civil war. The rift deepened further after the U.S. presented evidence that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against civilians. Russia has rejected the evidence and blocked United Nations authorization for a military response, leaving Obama to act on his own.
“There’s no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we’ve kind of hit a wall” on U.S.-Russian cooperation, Obama said at the Stockholm news conference.
“But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues,” he said. “Where we’ve got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences, but not sugarcoat them.”
With Syria a dominant topic Putin may find the glow from having a global summit in his hometown dimmed.
Syria is “going to kind of suck the oxygen out of the meeting” in St. Petersburg, said William Pomeranz, an expert on Russian economics at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, an independent research group.
The Russian leader, 60, also has domestic political concerns to contend with that may exacerbate the tensions with the U.S. Alexey Navalny, a top Putin critic, has surged in recent polls in the mayoral election, scheduled for Sept. 8.
Putin’s “got to defend his flank in Russian domestic politics,” Pomeranz said. “He has to look tough, he has to look effective.”
That means Putin will try to keep the agenda focused on economic growth and jobs, the theme of the two-day summit, without appearing too accommodating to Western powers, especially to Obama.
“This is the worst personal relationship of the U.S. and Russian leaders in history,” said Andrew Kuchins, an expert on Russia at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington.
“I really think these two guys, Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama, don’t like each other at all,” he said. “I think there’s a deep degree of disrespect.”
When Obama at an Aug. 9 news conference compared Putin to the disinterested slouching kid in the back of the classroom “you’ve taken the relationship to a personal level,” Kuchins said. “Mr. Putin is not a person that forgets many personal insults, and it’s not played well in the relationship.”
The White House said the two leaders aren’t scheduled to hold private talks at the economic summit, though they will have “ many opportunities to engage.”
Putin sent three more ships to the eastern Mediterranean to bolster its fleet there. The buildup raised the stakes as the U.S. prepares for possible action against Syria, which is sending warships and submarines to the east Mediterranean armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“Russia is sending a strong signal that the conflict surrounding Syria touches on its interests, to ensure that international law is upheld and there is no bypassing the UN Security Council,” Ivan Safranchuk, deputy director of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Contemporary International Studies in Moscow, said by phone.
“Do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I’m always hopeful,” Obama, 52, said today. “And I will continue to engage him because I think that international action would be much more effective.”
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