Vladimir Putin tomorrow morning welcomes President Barack Obama and the other heads of the world’s leading and emerging nations to a G20 summit in St Petersburg that is set to crackle with tensions over the case for punitive strikes against Syria for allegedly using chemical weapons against its own people.
The stage may be set for one of the most awkward and uncomfortable international summits in recent memory with the Syrian crisis set to dominate discussions and the two heavy-weights at the table – Messrs Putin and Obama – facing off on the best way forward. A once planned separate summit between the two men was cancelled by Washington weeks ago even before the latest deterioration in relations.
At a stop-over in Stockholm, Sweden, Mr Obama attempted to depersonalise his own conviction in favour of strikes saying the responsibility to act was the whole worlds. “I didn’t set a red line,” he said at a press conference. “The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 per cent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent.”
For his part, Mr Putin warned bluntly that Russia would consider any strikes ordered by Washington without United Nations backing an act of “aggression”. Nor, he said, would Moscow necessarily stand by if that were to unfold. Without offering details, he said: “We have our ideas about what we will do and how we will do it in case the situation develops toward the use of force or otherwise. We have our plans.”
President Putin may have dropped the temperature slightly saying in an interview with the Associated Press that Russia would not rule out supporting a UN resolution for action on Syria if evidence was ever presented proving the use of gas by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But he also noted that he remains unconvinced by US intelligence and called the notion of Assad’s forcing using gas “utterly ridiculous”.
Tonight, the Russian foreign ministry said its expert findings show that the chemical weapon used in the chemical attack in Syria are similar to ones made by a rebel group.
In Stockholm, Mr Obama was speaking to several audiences at once – to Mr Putin, to the other leaders due to attend the summit, including Prime Minister David Cameron whose hand has been stayed on the issue by parliament, and to lawmakers back in Washington whose support for the attacks he has called for. The full US Congress is likely to take votes on his request during next week after his return from the summit.
Stressing again that the risks were more than just his, he said. “My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line, because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”
Meanwhile, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, and other top members of Mr Obama’s national security team continued their full-court press to persuade members of Congress to back the call for limited military strikes. The situation on Capitol Hill remained fluid, however. While the Senate Foreign Relations Committee moved towards approving a draft resolution approving strikes, doubts lingered over prospects for the president’s request in the full Senate and more especially in the House of Representatives. The impression that Mr Obama in Stockholm wanted to shift responsibility off his shoulders and onto those of Congress did not sit well with everyone in Washington meanwhile. “If he chooses to wash his hands of this, you can surely imagine how a vote will turn out,” one top Republican aide on Capitol Hill retorted. Meanwhile a new ABC TV poll showed that nearly two thirds of Americans are still opposed to strikes.
Mr Putin evoked the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 amid weapons of mass destruction claims that turned out to be false as reason to distrust the case being put forward on Syria. “All these arguments turned out to be untenable, but they were used to launch a military action, which many in the US called a mistake,” Mr Putin said. “Did we forget about that?”
And for his part, Mr Obama acknowledged that those memories still hovered in Europe. “I’m very mindful that around the world and here in Europe in particular there are memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is,” Mr Obama said. “Keep in mind, I’m somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and am not interested in repeating mistakes basing decisions on false intelligence. But having done a thoroughgoing evaluation of the information that is available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapons were used.”