Summit lets Obama, Putin size up the competition

Associated Press
FILE - In this July 7, 2009 file photo, President Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow. With global anxiety rising, President Barack Obama is searching for bolder, swifter signals from Europe that it will contain its fiscal mess and keep it from torpedoing the U.S. economy and his re-election chances along with it. Yet as he prepares to plunge into summit talks with the other world leaders, Obama is down to the power of persuasion and little else.  (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
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LOS CABOS, Mexico (AP) — 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 Greek 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.

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.

The Interfax news agency reported Monday that two Russian navy ships were preparing to sail to Syria with a unit of marines on a mission to protect Russian citizens and a Russian naval base there. The report didn't give a give a precise date for the departure of the two amphibious landing vessels.

The United States has refused to arm anti-Assad rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight in which Iran, Russia and others arm one side and the U.S. and Sunni Arab states arm the other. Opposition groups estimate 14,000 people have died in violence that the U.S. fears is sliding into civil war.

Putin's campaign included some of the strongest anti-American rhetoric from Moscow in a decade and he openly accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting protests against him. The Obama administration mostly tried to shrug it off, but Putin's return to the presidency makes it more likely that any help Russia provides in Syria, Iran or other matters will come at a cost.

Russia's membership in numerous world bodies and its veto power at the U.N. Security Council give it leverage beyond its economic or military power. Obama holds far greater power and both leaders know it, but Putin can be a spoiler and irritant.

"President Putin clearly is somebody who can articulate where he has differences with the United States, but we can also articulate where we have differences with Russia," Rhodes said. "And I think our assessment is that being candid with one another and clear with one another is in the best interest of the relationship."

The White House tried to soften the blow of Clinton's accusation days before the G-20 meeting that Russia was equipping the Syrian government with attack helicopters that could be used against civilians. She later acknowledged they were only helicopters already owned by Syria that had been sent back to Russia for repairs, but Russia was already annoyed.

Russia insists that any arms it supplies to Syria are not being used to quell anti-government dissent that began more than a year ago, and has rebuffed efforts to impose an international arms embargo.

"Putin is in a petulant sort of mood," said Russia scholar Mark N. Katz of George Mason University. "He's got all these grievances about American foreign policy and he's looking for us to satisfy him, and I don't think we're going to do that. No amount of bonhomie or talking nicely is going to fix that."

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