September 6, 2013

Pleasantries belie superpower struggle

A brief public meeting does little to refute a worsening relationship between the U.S. and Russian presidents.

The Associated Press

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - President Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin shook hands, smiled and made small talk about the scenery on Thursday -- a public exchange of pleasantries belying a tense relationship that only seems to be getting worse.

Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama
click image to enlarge

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Obama greet each other in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Thursday.

The Associated Press

WORLD LEADERS VOICE DOUBTS ABOUT SYRIAN RESPONSE

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - With Russia appearing to remain firmly against a punitive attack on Syria, President Obama appealed to other world leaders on Thursday, but he ran into opposition from China and even the European Union.

"The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed," Obama insisted during a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit, where he mostly made his case behind the scenes.

China's G-20 delegation spokesman, Qin Gang, was among those who countered, saying: "War isn't the fundamental way to solve problems in Syria."

The European Union also was skeptical. EU President Herman Van Rompuy told reporters in St. Petersburg that the August chemical weapons attack "was a blatant violation of international law and a crime against humanity," but he said a political, not military, solution was needed in Syria.

"While respecting the recent calls for action, we ... need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the U.N. process," Van Rompuy said.

-- The Associated Press

"We've kind of hit a wall," Obama said of the United States' ties with Russia the day before he arrived in St. Petersburg for a global summit.

With tensions mounting over issues including Syria, National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, and human rights, Obama and Putin did not plan to hold a formal bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering. A formal greeting outside St. Petersburg's Constantine Palace was their only planned one-on-one public appearance.

Parsing the body language between Obama and Putin has become something of a geopolitical parlor game every time the two leaders meet. But there wasn't much to work with this time: Their exchange lasted 15 seconds.

Obama's black armored limousine pulled up to the palace where Putin was waiting to greet each of the leaders. The U.S. president was the only leader who used his own official vehicle for the arrival, opting not to use the summit-issued Mercedes the other 19 leaders used.

The two leaders, both smiling, greeted each other with a handshake. Obama gestured toward the palace and the bright blue sky, declaring the location "beautiful."

Obama and Putin may talk again on the sidelines but without a formal announcement.

Differences over Syria have heightened tensions between Obama and Putin since the civil war there started more than two years ago. While the U.S. president has called for Syrian President Bashar Assad's ouster, the Russian leader has helped prop up the Syrian government, both economically and militarily.

Putin also has criticized Obama's push toward potential military action against Syria to punish it for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack. Obama is seeking congressional authorization for a military strike, an endeavor with uncertain prospects.

Upon coming into office, Obama made a high-profile effort to "reset" relations with Russia. He made progress with former President Dmitry Medvedev, including on missile defense and opening more transit lines from Afghanistan. But the relationship began to fray when Putin reassumed the presidency.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings on the world stage, where their stiff body language has signaled a troubled relationship. During a news conference, Obama described Putin's notorious slouch that made him look like "the bored kid at the back of the classroom."

In an interview with The Associated Press this week, Putin played down the notion of personal tensions with his U.S. counterpart.

"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," Putin said. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone, either."

 

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