During a tense week in which Britain’s Parliament pointedly refused to support a potential military strike, the administration’s focus on Russia marked another low point in the long-fraught relationship between the two nations.
Even before the Syrian crisis, President Obama had canceled a planned one-on-one meeting next week in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, citing a litany of differences, ranging from human rights to nuclear disarmament to Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum. Instead, Obama will make his first visit to Stockholm before traveling to St. Petersburg for the Group of 20 economic summit hosted by Putin.
Obama now faces the prospect of attending the summit after having potentially ordering airstrikes against the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, which counts Moscow as a crucial ally. Obama said Friday that he has not made a final decision but is considering “a limited, narrow act” of military force.
Senior administration officials reiterated during a conference call with reporters Friday that Obama has no plans to meet directly with Putin. But they said the tensions will not prevent the two countries from working together on job growth and economic development, the main focus of the two-day gathering.
The officials emphasized that diplomatic channels remain open, pointing to a series of economic and defense meetings between U.S. and Russian representatives in the past few weeks.
“We continue to be driven by mutual strategic interests,” said one White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to talk on the record. “We do not think cooperation should halt even as we have differences on tactics. Our relationship has often been marked by cooperation and contested policies; that’s not new for us.”
Experts said relations between the two countries are at a low ebb despite Obama’s attempt to reset the dialogue after his reelection last year. Obama denounced the Russian government’s new anti-gay laws during a news conference this month and poked fun at Putin’s body language, often interpreted by reporters as dislike for Obama.
“He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Obama said, adding unconvincingly that he and Putin have “very productive” meetings despite the outward appearances.
Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that personal relations between Obama and Putin are worse than any U.S. president with their Russian, or even Soviet, counterparts in history.
“There’s a deep degree of disrespect,” Kuchins said. “It’s very likely that we could see this relationship muddle along at this, very, very kind of unpleasant level for the next three years until we’re looking at a new administration in the United States.”
Moscow has been unchanging in its position on Syria. It argues that toppling the regime could bring about unforeseen and undesirable consequences, and that U.S interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan only made things worse.
Obama placed calls Friday to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who was rebuffed Thursday by parliament on Syria, and French President François Hollande, who has been supportive of a strong response to Assad. Obama also met Friday afternoon in the Cabinet Room with the presidents of three Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — that are on Russia’s doorstep and often act as an irritant to Moscow.
Obama told reporters that the Baltics “are among our most reliable allies in NATO, and our commitment to their security is rock solid.”
Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves then offered Obama a friendly boost on Syria: “The use of chemical weapons is deplorable. The attack demands a response. Those responsible must be held accountable.”