ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged a handshake, some pleasantries and seemingly little else Thursday as they met before an economic summit overshadowed by Obama’s call for a military strike against Putin’s ally, Syria.
The 15-second encounter came as Obama arrived at the G20 meeting of the world’s top 20 economic powers, hoping to sway world leaders to embrace his call for a targeted military strike against the regime his administration says unleashed lethal chemical weapons on its own citizens.
“The use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed,” Obama said during one meeting, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Obama’s most vocal obstacle on the world stage is Putin, who has ridiculed U.S. claims of certainty that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Putin’s government on the eve of the summit released a detailed report on a chemical weapons attack in Syria this spring, saying it was unleashed not by the government but by rebel forces. The U.S. charges have focused on an August attack.
Even as Obama sought world support at the summit, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations lashed out at Russia for saying it would consider an international response while effectively blocking any chance of a resolution by the U.N. Security Council backing force against the Syrian government.
“We have seen nothing in President Putin’s comments that suggests that there’s an available path forward at the Security Council,” U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said. “Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirks its international responsibilities.”
Russia is one of five nations on the Security Council with the power to veto a resolution, along with Britain, China, France and the United States.
If Putin was openly hostile to the U.S. bid, a U.S. ally signaled skepticism about the need for military action.
The head of the European Union told reporters at the summit that he preferred a diplomatic answer.
“While respecting the recent calls for action, we underscore at the same time the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the U.N. process,” said EU President Herman Van Rompuy.
White House officials acknowledged before the two-day summit in Putin’s hometown began that there was little chance of changing Putin’s mind. The Russian leader has warned the U.S. against a strike and routinely rejected calls at the United Nations to censure Assad.
And Obama and Putin have little personal rapport to build on. Obama canceled a pre-summit meeting with Putin, citing the Kremlin’s decision to offer intelligence leaker Edward Snowden asylum and saying Russia hadn’t offered any progress on a host of issues the White House had hoped to address. Following that, Obama likened Putin to a disinterested schoolboy, slumping in class.
But on Thursday, Putin stood as host as of a global economic summit, shaking hands with leaders as they stepped out of a stream of jet black Mercedes and BMW sedans at the imperial Constantine Palace near the Baltic Sea. He welcomed several leaders warmly, briefly chatting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two shared a joke, Putin’s laughter loud enough to hear over the din of cameras capturing the moment.
After he and Obama greeted each other soberly and shook hands for the cameras, Obama flashed a smile as the two turned to the cameras. They chatted briefly and Obama bounded into the meeting.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Obama planned to make his case on the margins of the meeting to gauge the level of “political and diplomatic support” the U.S. could expect from its allies and key partners.
To that end, Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with French President Francois Hollande on the second and final day of the summit. He’ll also meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Rhodes said France has indicated “potential interest in participating in an effort to hold the Syrian regime accountable.”
Obama got a friendly take from Abe, who said before a meeting with the president that he looked forward “to continuously and closely working with you to improve the situation on the ground.”
The White House said Obama plans to “work the Hill” during the trip and Wednesday placed phone calls to a bipartisan group of senators. The White House said Obama was canceling a planned fundraising trip to California next week so he could be in Washington during the coming congressional debate.
On Thursday, Obama seemingly had his hands full dancing around Putin.
Dinner for the leaders got off to a late start – and even then a division between Obama and Putin emerged.
Putin arrived at Peterhof, the grand castle, shortly after 9 p.m., strolling down the carpet and chatting animatedly via interpreters with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner – the two of them heading up a delegation that included Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama arrived nearly 30 minutes later, walking down the long path by himself before briskly stepping in to join his fellow leaders.
The White House said later that Obama met first with Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, who reportedly postponed an advance trip to the U.S. by aides to make arrangements for a planned presidential trip to the U.S., amid anger that the National Security Agency picked up her phone calls and emails.
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