The diplomatic dialogue between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin has featured the U.S. president comparing Putin to a bored schoolboy and the Russian leader forcing an irritated Obama to wait a half-hour for a meeting.
And that was before warships from the two nations drew near in the Eastern Mediterranean amid a widening rift over Obama’s threat of a military strike against Syria after what he says is the regime’s use of chemical weapons.
With Obama in St. Petersburg today for a summit of global leaders, Putin yesterday denounced a potential U.S. attack on Syria as a violation of international law, while Obama told reporters the two countries’ relations have “hit a wall.”
“This is basically as bad as it gets,” said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University and the Russia director for the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton. “You typically don’t have leaders who so openly criticize each other, who openly disdain each other.”
Putin, the host of the Group of 20 Summit, waited for Obama outside the Constantine Palace and the two exchanged smiles and a stiff handshake after the U.S. president emerged from his limousine. Obama was inside the palace within 15 seconds.
Obama and Putin don’t have a one-on-one meeting scheduled. They’ll probably interact informally during the closed-door G-20 sessions which often result in side conversations, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, briefing reporters en route to Russia.
Obama will make a case at a dinner tonight to leaders of other major industrial and emerging economies to support military action against Syria, Rhodes said. Putin will also be working the visiting heads of government, arguing against it, the Russian leader’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in an interview today with state broadcaster RT.
The chill may complicate U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and other international crises in addition to Syria, said Fiona Hill, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington and the former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia, responsible for coordinating high-level assessments.
“Given the current state of the relationship and the mentality of Putin, they’re more likely than not to be the spoiler in any critical area where we’re going to make progress” if Russia is involved, Hill said. “That’s the real tragedy.”
The two leaders’ public tension ends a period of improved ties between the U.S. and Russia after Obama came into office, determined to “reset” the relationship. The fruits included agreements with then-President Dmitry Medvedev for new nuclear arms limits and a supply route through Russia for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Another benefit was Russia’s decision not to veto a United Nations Security Council move authorizing the use of air attacks by the U.S. and other nations on Libya.
Among Putin’s first acts after his election to a third term as Russian president last year to replace his ally Medvedev was to skip a Group of Eight summit that Obama hosted at Camp David, Maryland. When the two met on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Mexico a month later, Putin annoyed Obama by keeping him waiting for 30-40 minutes, a U.S. official said.
Putin has blocked U.S. efforts to win backing for sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. When the U.S. Congress responded to a crackdown on dissent in Russia with a law imposing sanctions on human-rights abusers in the country, Putin retaliated by halting U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans.
Putin told the Associated Press that Russia “doesn’t exclude” backing a UN resolution allowing military strikes against Syria if it’s proved the regime used poison gas. Still, he targeted Obama’s request for U.S. congressional authorization to use force as a violation of international law.
“Anything outside the framework of the UN Security Council is aggression, other than self-defense,” Putin said in remarks at the Kremlin. “What Congress and the Senate are doing now is essentially legitimizing aggression. This is unacceptable.”
He also accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of deceit in his Sept. 3 Senate testimony, with Putin arguing that al-Qaeda-influenced elements are the most powerful forces in the Syrian rebellion.
“They know about it,” he said of the Obama administration. “I found it unpleasant, surprising,” Putin said. “But he lies, and he knows he lies. It’s sad.”
Rhodes said the administration will continue discussions with the Russians about the evidence tying the Assad regime to the chemical attack. Even with that, he said, the White House remains “highly skeptical” that Russia will change its stance at the UN.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 yesterday to authorize a limited military strike against Syria, clearing the way for consideration of the resolution by the full Senate when it returns from a five-week break on Sept. 9.
Russia is temporarily bolstering its naval presence in the region to improve its surveillance of U.S. ships and submarines and to ensure security for Russian citizens residing in Syria, according to a Russian official who asked not to be named, citing government policy.
“We’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress” on critical issues, Obama, 52, said yesterday at a press conference in Stockholm, where he visited on the way to the international summit after canceling a planned meeting with Putin in Moscow.
Still, he said he hasn’t “written off” future areas where U.S. and Russian interests might intersect and shrugged off the deterioration in relations. The two countries should be open about their differences and not “sugarcoat them,” he said.
Obama called off the Moscow summit after Putin provided asylum to Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor who ignited a firestorm of international criticism against the U.S. by leaking details of surveillance programs.
Obama has never been as popular in Russia as in Western Europe, Pew Research polling data show. As relations between the U.S. president and Putin cooled, the Russian media started showing pictures of a “perplexed” or “offended” Obama, with a frown on his face or raised eyebrows, said Erast Galumov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s World and Politics magazine.
A photo taken at the last G-8 summit, in Northern Ireland in June, showed both leaders staring at the floor rather than looking at each other. Obama, addressing the awkward body language between the two leaders, described Putin at an Aug. 9 news conference as having a “slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Though Obama went on to say the two often have “very productive” conversations, his comments on his counterpart’s posture generated more attention.
“That overstepped the boundaries into the personal realm,” said Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
While rooted in a clash of each president’s reading of his nation’s strategic interests, the frosty relationship also reflects the divergent world views of men of different generations and paths to power, said Hill, who has written a biography of Putin: “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.”
Putin, at 60 almost a decade older than Obama, worked as a KGB officer in East Germany recruiting spies in the Cold War struggle against the West and rose to power as a government functionary, Hill said. Obama, less shaped by the superpower competition, started as a grass-roots political organizer and ascended to the presidency only a few years after entering national politics.
Putin’s domestic political base also has been scarred by the Soviet Union’s disintegration and yearns for a muscular role for Russia in the world, Goldgeier said.
“He’s played the nationalist card well,” Goldgeier said. “He’s not going to be in a position where he’s seen to be caving to the United States.”
Before a 2009 trip to Russia, Obama described Putin, then the prime minister, as a man with “one foot in the old ways of doing business” who needed to understand “that the old Cold War approaches to U.S.-Russian relations is outdated.”
Obama’s explanation for delaying a strike on Syria to gain authorization from Congress isn’t persuasive to Putin, who like previous Russian leaders has difficulty appreciating the political independence of U.S. lawmakers, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser who heads the Effective Policy Foundation in Moscow.
Putin considers the decision a sign of “weakness,” Pavlovsky said. “From Putin’s point of view, if the president differs with the public on an issue he thinks the public is wrong about, then he should just ignore the public.”