September 3, 2013 7:22 pm

US-Russia grandstanding threatens to hijack G20 debate

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US President Barack Obama (L) holds a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013©Getty

When the leaders of 20 nations gather on Thursday in St Petersburg for the annual G20 summit, they will be doing their best to focus on a host of economic issues, but trying hard not to look over their shoulder at the increasingly precarious chemistry between two of their number: US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin

With the crisis in Syria dominating the atmosphere, if not the formal agenda of the two-day summit, disagreements between Moscow and Washington threaten to hijack the debate in the form of sniping, grandstanding and demagoguery.

Amid a history of slights and subtle insults, Mr Obama and Mr Putin’s personal relationship has become so bad that it threatens to get in the way of any attempts to build common ground over Syria. Following the cancellation last month by Washington of a separate summit between the two men, there are currently no bilateral meetings planned, said a Kremlin representative.

“Being in the same forum and under the same roof definitely they will have a chance to chat to each other,” said Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, striking a positive note. “If they take a decision to have a more lengthy conversation then they will have a chance to do that. But the schedule is very loaded.”

The two countries are at loggerheads over Mr Obama’s plans to strike Syria militarily, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians last month which left more than 1,400 dead in a suburb of Damascus, according to the US. The US, according to Obama, has proof that the attack was carried out by government forces, while Moscow, which supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad, said the rebels were clearly orchestrating a provocation.

“Since the end of the cold war, I have never seen the personal relationship between a US and a Russian president sink this low,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, the think-tank.

The Kremlin is still seething following comments made by Mr Obama in August comparing Mr Putin to a bad student. “He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” he told a press conference on August 9.

Mr Obama’s withdrawal from bilateral talks in St Petersburg, reacting to Russia’s decision to give former US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden political asylum, was the latest in a series of tit-for-tat slights: when Mr Putin won re-election, Mr Obama called to congratulate him, but four days late. Then Mr Putin withdrew from a planned June 2012 summit with Mr Obama citing a “busy schedule”.

I will be addressing Obama not as my colleague, not as the US president but as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

- Vladimir Putin, Russian president

Mr Putin, for his part, told journalists during a visit to Vladivostok on August 31 that the G20 would be an “appropriate place” to raise the Syria question, and that: “I will be addressing Obama not as my colleague, not as the US president but as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Russian experts say however that it is neither in Russia’s nor the US’s interest to see Syria dominate the summit. Russia is hosting the affair, so it has an interest in maintaining decorum and preventing a diplomatic mud-slinging contest, according to Nikita Lomagin, a professor of political science from the European University of St Petersburg. “They are not interested in big scandals,” he said. “They want to see their economic agenda realised.”

The main items on Russia’s agenda are economic matters – particularly sharing concern over the prospective “tapering” of soft monetary policy in the US which has put pressure on currencies and stock markets throughout emerging markets. Russia is also interested in promoting a corruption-fighting agenda and measures to stimulate its own flagging growth.

Another analyst said the tension between Moscow and Washington would be mainly “passive-aggressive” but unlikely to boil over into full-blown diplomatic war.

“Every politician has emotions of course but these emotions are starting to take over the debate,” said Alexander Panov, deputy director of the Institute of the USA and Canada in Moscow. “Someone must take the first step towards a solution, but so far I don’t see anything like this.”

The unpredictable factor, however, will be Mr Putin. A gifted showman who is clearly furious at US slights, he has proven an explosive commodity in the past.

“Everyone I know has very low expectations,” said Mr Trenin.

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