Mounting tensions between the United States and Russia were on full display Monday when President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with reporters after a meeting on the margins of the Group of 20 summit.
Putin and Obama met in one of the villas of the Las Esperanza resort in Los Cabos that afforded gorgeous views of the ocean, “but the mood was not cheerful,” according to a White House pool report.
Putin spoke briefly, and barely commented on Syria, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to help President Bashar Assad hold on to power.
“We also discussed international affairs, including the Syrian affair,” Putin said. “From my perspective, we’ve been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues. And we’ll now further develop our contacts both on a personal level and on the level of our experts involved.”
When Obama spoke, the pool report said Putin mostly stared downward, and made no eye contact with Obama. Syria was the last topic broached by the U.S. president. Putin “sat expressionless during this part of Mr. Obama’s statement,” according to a pool report. “He bit his lip and stared down at the floor.”
The leaders released a 1,600-word statement after their meeting touting their cooperation on everything from the Iranian nuclear showdown to worldwide nonproliferation efforts.
But that effort belied the chill between the two.
On Syria, Obama said the leaders “agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war and the kind of horrific deaths that we’ve seen over the last several weeks.” He also said the two had agreed to work with other international actors to try to find a resolution.
When Putin invited Obama to come to Moscow, Obama responded by saying he looked forward to visiting Russia again, but the pool report said “he turned so quickly toward the interpreter that you had to wonder.”
Neither side mentioned the so-called Magnitsky bill moving through Congress. The legislation, named after a Russian lawyer who died while in police custody, would sanction Russian officials implicated in human-rights abuses. Russia has objected to the bill and the Obama administration opposes it, but lawmakers plan to link it to a bill providing permanent normal trade relations between the two countries.
Asked if the meeting was important for the Russians, a Russian diplomat said: “Yes, but even more for the Americans,” according to a pool report.
As the photographers, reporters and television crews that make up the pools left the room, Obama and Putin remained seated without their interpreters — “and they just stared straight ahead. No interacting or chit chatting,” the pool report said.
The highly anticipated meeting was the first between Obama and Putin since the latter regained his country’s presidency in March. Putin snubbed Obama in May by skipping the G-8 summit at Camp David.
Republicans have been calling Obama’s “reset” with Russia a failure amid clashes on Syria, missile defense plans for Europe and a host of other issues. Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has even labeled Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
The joint statement, a bland mishmash of generic statements — whole paragraphs were copied and pasted in the wrong font and even the wrong color — led with the White House’s determination not to let the crisis in Syria delay Congress from establishing normal trade relations with Russia as it joins the World Trade Organization next month.
Tensions over Syria are bound to continue.
Russia has twice vetoed stronger action from the United Nations Security Council and stood by Assad, to Washington’s dismay.
Obama administration officials have repeatedly chided Russia for backing the Syrian leader, and last week Clinton sparked an uproar with her charge that Russia was sending new helicopters to the Syrian army — a statement later clarified to note they were refurbished helicopters initially sold years ago.
But hawks in Congress have criticized the Obama administration for not taking stronger action in Syria. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s most vocal critic on the issue, has called for an international coalition led by the United States to use airstrikes to establish safe havens for the Syrian opposition.
At a speech to the American Enterprise Institute delivered during Obama’s meeting with Putin, McCain said the Kremlin is supporting Syria over “nostalgia” for the “old Russian empire.”
“They’re harming themselves dramatically, and I don’t quite understand that,” McCain said, adding that he suspected Russia was also worried the Arab Spring would spread to other parts of the world.
“The administration now appears to be placing its hopes in the Russian government to push Assad from power in a Yemen-like transition,” McCain said. “This is the same Russian government that continues to provide heavy weapons and moral support to Assad.”
Monday’s meeting was the first between Putin and Obama since 2009, when Putin was Russia’s prime minister. Obama had his “live mic” moment in March 2012 with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, during which he said that he would have “more space” on missile defense after the American election.
Medvedev responded that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir.”
Republicans have hammered Obama over the remark ever since, accusing Obama of having a “secret deal” with the Russians to weaken missile defense.
Obama said after Monday’s meeting with Putin that on missile defense, the two leaders “resolved to continue to work through some of the difficult problems involved there,” the largest of which is the U.S.-backed missile shield in Europe.