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Summit lets Obama, Putin size up the competition

By Anne Gearan

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 18 2012 8:21 a.m. MDT

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with the military top brass while visiting a military airbase in the city of Korenovsk, about 1200 kilometers (750 miles) south of Moscow, Thursday, June 14, 2012. President Vladimir Putin says Russia needs a new strategic bomber and will develop it despite high costs. Speaking Thursday at a meeting with the military top brass after visiting a base in southern Russia, Putin said the project would be expensive and technologically challenging. He added that the job needs to be done despite high costs, according to Russian news agencies.

RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service, Associated Press

SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico — President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin need one another, an uncomfortable truth for the superpower leader waging a tough re-election campaign and the newly elected Russian leader who is deeply suspicious of the United States.

The two men will use their meeting Monday, the first since Putin returned to Russia's top job, to claim leverage. Much of the rest of the Group of 20 economic meeting will be devoted to the European fiscal crisis and the fate of Greece as a part of the euro zone. A pro-euro candidate is trying to form a coalition government following elections Sunday, but the anti-austerity second-place party has refused.

"I expect that it will be a candid discussion, it will get down to business," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said ahead of the lengthy morning meeting between Obama and Putin.

"We'll be able to sustain cooperation in some areas, we'll have differences in other areas, and we'll work to try to bridge those differences."

Obama was also meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel later Monday. Germany is playing a leading role brokering a solution to Europe's debt crisis.

The G-20 gathering is a natural forum for sideline discussions of the urgent crisis in Syria as well as diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran. Russia is a linchpin in world efforts to resolve both crises, and to U.S. goals for the smooth shutdown of the war in Afghanistan. In the longer term, Obama wants Russia's continued cooperation in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

Obama made a special project of Russia in his first term and arguably needs Moscow's help even more if he wins a second one. He is trying to avoid a distracting public spat with Russia during this election year, as suggested by an overheard remark to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March. Obama told Medvedev he would have more flexibility to answer Russian complaints about a U.S.-built missile defense shield in Europe after the November election.

Things got off to a rocky start with Putin, when Obama pointedly withheld a customary congratulatory phone call to Putin until days after his May election. Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the smaller and weightier Group of Eight meeting that Obama hosted later that month at Camp David, and a planned Oval Office welcome for the new Russian leader.

The rescheduled Obama-Putin meeting comes the same day as Moscow hosts an international negotiating session with Iran. Russia has gone along with U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten some penalties against Iran because of questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but has blocked the harshest punishments. Still, the United States needs Russia's participation to lend legitimacy to the argument that Iran faces broad international condemnation. Iran usually paints the dispute over its nuclear program as a confrontation with the U.S. and its ally Israel.

Brutal attacks on anti-government protesters in Syria and the threat of civil war in the Mideast nation pose the most immediate crisis.

Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the four-decade Assad family rule. Russia, as Syria's longtime ally and trading partner, is seen as the best broker for a deal that could give Syrian President Bashar Assad political refuge. So far, Moscow has said no.

Pressure increased on Russia over the weekend, when the United Nations suspended its unarmed monitoring mission in Syria out of concern for the monitors' safety. The move was widely interpreted as a challenge to Russia to intervene with Assad to preserve a U.N. role Moscow sees as a brake on any armed foreign intervention.

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