Putin Overwhelms Obama at the Sulky Summit

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

When Russian President Vladimir Putin came out to welcome world leaders to this week's G-20 summit at the Constantine Palace in Strelna, a St. Petersburg suburb, many wondered how it would go between him and U.S. President Barack Obama.

The latter had, after all,likened Putin to a bored, slouching kid at the back of the class. The Russian ex-KGB officer, eight years Obama's senior, took offense. In an interview the day before the summit, he resorted to the royal "we" when commenting on Obama's remark: "I am surprised sometimes to read about body language, about us being bored or otherwise behaving differently. Who but ourselves can say what's in our heads and our souls?"

The leaders arrived one after another in Russian-assembled Series 7 BMWs that were provided by the hosts. Putin laughed with U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and spent more time talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel than to any of his other guests. Obama was the last to appear -- in his own Cadillac.

He extended his hand as soon as he climbed out of the limousine, and Putin did the same as he walked over to meet him. The handshake was brief, just long enough for photographers to capture Obama's broad smile and Putin's more tight-lipped one.

Through most of the first day Putin and Obama avoided each other. The organizers initially wanted to seat the G20 leaders according to the Russian alphabetical order of their countries, putting only King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia between Putin and Obama, but decided at the last moment to switch to the Latin alphabet. The Russian and U.S. presidents ended up separated by five people. They didn't exchange a meaningful word.

Finally, the two stepped aside for a 20-minute conversation during the first day's dinner and reception. The talk appears to have been inconclusive.

The St. Petersburg meeting of the G-20 may well go down in history as the Sulky Summit, but also as a qualified Putin victory. "Syria: G-20 trapped by Putin," read a headline in the conservative French newspaper le Figaro.

Most of the leaders present share the Russian president's views on whether to intervene in Syria, the most divisive issue on the agenda. European Council President Herman van Rompuy, representing the European Union at the summit, said early on that -- unlike Obama and his British, French, Turkish and Canadian allies -- he did not support airstrikes. Putin even received a letter from Pope Francis, which said the search for a military solution in Syria was "futile." Like van Rompuy, Merkel wants the situation to be resolved within the framework of the United Nations, and most of the leaders of the emerging world agree.

At June's G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted that Putin was an outlier in the group, because of his stand on Syria: "I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is G7 plus one ... We in the West have a very different perspective on this situation. Mr. Putin and his government are supporting the thugs of the Assad regime for their own reasons that I do not think are justifiable."

Yet Putin was able to block the G-8 from issuing a statement condemning Assad and demanding his ouster -- and that was before the Obama called for air strikes to punish Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians.

In St. Petersburg, Putin and Harper smiled and shook hands. The Canadian prime minister did not talk of "G-19 plus one." In the expanded format, a tough line on Assad is unpopular. Putin clearly enjoyed rubbing in the fact that a number of big, increasingly economically powerful countries did not feel the need to fall in with the U.S. line.

Putin also reveled in his role as host. It was he who cajoled Russian and foreign companies into helping to fund the $300 million refurbishment of the Constantine palace, finished in 2003. So the imperial splendor of the summit's backdrop was in part his doing. The meeting was impeccably and expensively organized, the Kremlin having splurged on a fleet of new buses and electric cars, a majestic light show at the baroque palace in Peterhof, and a further $60 million pre-summit facelift of the Constantine palace.

This being Russia, some of the expense was called into question. Dimtry Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary,said that during the first day of the summit, 1,500 people were served by the press center's restaurant, consuming 26 tons of food. "You're eating a lot," he told reporters. Journalists quickly calculated that Peskov's numbers came to 17 kilograms (37.5 pounds) of food per person.

"They must have allocated money for 26 tons of food," Elena Panfilova, head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, wrote only half-jokingly on Facebook. "Then they must have skimmed 50 percent right off and another 40 percent when they went about buying the 13 tons for which they had money left. That left them with about 7.5 tons. Then they lost another 30 percent to spillage and shrinkage during transportation and cooking. So about 5 tons was served, and I know from experience that one can put away some three kilos of canapes and sandwiches during a stressful event."

Syria aside, Obama and Harper have the same problem with Putin and his regime that many Russians do: It is transparently corrupt, Byzantine and self-serving. That, however, does not prevent it from organizing impressive international events and scoring diplomatic victories.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net