President Vladimir Putin will not be attending this month’s Group of Eight summit in Camp David, the Kremlin confirmed on Thursday, saying Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, would go in his place.
Russian officials rushed to deny that the step was a snub aimed at President Barack Obama and the US.
However, it will be the first time that Russia’s president has not attended a G8 summit of leading industrial nations – to which Russia was added in 1997 in an effort to woo Moscow.
Natalia Timakova, Kremlin press secretary, told Interfax news agency that Mr Putin had informed Mr Obama in a phone call that he would send Mr Medvedev in his place, adding that the difficulties of forming a cabinet were weighing heavily on Mr Putin’s schedule.
The Obama administration changed the venue of the two-day summit – on May 18 and 19 – from Chicago to Camp David, in part to accommodate Mr Putin, officials and diplomats said. The new location separates the meeting from a Nato summit in Chicago that follows it, where issues sensitive to Russia, such as European missile defence, will be on the agenda.
The low-key setting would have given Mr Obama the chance to have a more in-depth conversation with Mr Putin.
The decision comes after Tom Donilon, US national security adviser, visited Moscow last week.
On Thursday, Russian officials seemed sceptical that cabinet deliberations were the only reason keeping Mr Putin away from the US. But with no further information forthcoming, most were hesitant to give a reason. “I don’t have any other version at the moment. That is the only version that exists,” said a senior parliamentary deputy who asked not to be named.
Other analysts said it was possible that domestic politics had kept Mr Putin in Moscow, and it was not just a fig leaf covering a broader crisis.
“Putin has no reason to snub Obama that I can see,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank.
“Difficulties of cabinet formation could be a major reason for Putin staying away.”
Observers had forecast particularly difficult negotiations in forming a cabinet as different factions compete for influence. Originally, Kremlin officials had expected to announce a cabinet the day after Mr Putin’s inauguration on Monday. According to the constitution, the cabinet must be named by May 22.
“To me, it looks like domestic stuff is more important at the moment,” said Mr Trenin. “Something is going on there – something that does not get leaked to the media, which means that it is serious.”
Mr Trenin said it was strange that Mr Putin would be attending the G20 summit next month in Mexico, where Russia plays a more modest role. He said: “G20 is [the] perfect place for Medvedev, but instead it’s Putin that is going.”
Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, said the decision was not a signal that US-Russian relations would deteriorate under Mr Putin, but that it did demonstrate “his different sense of priorities”.
He said: “There was a feeling that he would have come under a lot of pressure over Iran and Syria and other issues, and that was not something he was interested in facing at this stage.”
A meeting with Mr Obama would have been a perfect place to set the tone for a re-affirmation of the US-Russian thaw in relations since 2009, known as the “Re-set”, following Mr Putin’s poll campaign, in which he used anti-US rhetoric and accused the state department of provoking protests against his rule.
The two men spoke following Mr Putin’s election, when Mr Obama called on March 9 to congratulate him on his presidential victory. However, analysts said the call came days after the election on March 4, and seems to have been a calculated snub by Washington.
“I think that the call was delayed on purpose, due to the rhetoric that Putin was using during his campaign,” said Yevgenia Albats, chief editor of The New Times, a Moscow opposition-oriented magazine.
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