In the past week, U.S. and Russian diplomats have displayed frayed relations over Syria, where suspension of the United Nations monitoring mission over the weekend has put added pressure on Obama and Putin.
Both leaders have said they aim to act decisively to keep the conflict from spiraling into civil war. But Obama appears to have little chance of persuading Putin to budge on Moscow’s resistance to tougher U.N. action against Damascus.
With Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continuing his bloody, 15-month crackdown on the opposition, Obama and Western allies want veto-wielding Moscow to stop shielding him from further U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at forcing him from power.
Violence in Syria has killed more than 14,400 people since an uprising against Assad’s regime erupted in mid-March 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
But Putin, a former KGB spymaster, is suspicious of U.S. motives especially after the NATO-assisted ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last year, and has offered little sign of softening his stance on Syria.
Though Washington has shown no appetite for a new Libya-style intervention, Russia is reluctant to abandon its Syrian ally, a longtime arms customer, and risk losing its last firm foothold in the Middle East, including access to a warm-water navy base.
Obama’s aides say they are counting on other G20 leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron also to exert pressure on Putin. But Putin can expect solidarity from China, which has joined in blocking anti-Assad moves at the United Nations.
The seriousness of the rift between Washington and Moscow was underscored last week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Russia of supplying Assad with attack helicopters. This drew an angry retort from the Kremlin.
“Some people are trying to spoil the atmosphere of these talks,” said Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s adviser on foreign policy.
He cited not only the arms sale accusation but also a proposed new bill in the U.S. Congress, the so-called “Magnitsky” law, that would target Russian human rights violators, legislation he called “anti-Russian.”
On Monday, a report revealed that Russia is preparing to send two amphibious assault ships to the Syrian port of Tartus where Moscow operates a strategic naval base to ensure safety of its nationals, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.
“Two major amphibious ships – The Nikolai Filchenkov and The Tsezar Kunikov – are preparing to be dispatched to Tartus outside of their schedule,” the Russian news agency quoted an unidentified officer from the Russian naval headquarters as saying.
The two ships will carry a “large” group of marines, Interfax added. There was no official confirmation of the report from the navy or the defense ministry.
The Tsezar Kunikov can carry 150 landing troops and various armaments including tanks, while The Nikolai Filchenkov can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo and equipment, the report said.
Interfax said that the ships could be used to evacuate Russian nationals.
Meanwhile, Putin focused on another irritant in relations on Thursday, warning ominously of an “appropriate reaction” to U.S.-backed missile defense plans for Europe that Moscow vehemently opposes.
Obama may seek to lower the temperature, but he also wants to be assertive enough to avoid giving Republicans an opening to accuse him of being soft on Moscow at a time when he is already struggling to defend his record on the economy. At the same time, he faces criticism for not providing stronger leadership on Syria.
Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group was “surprised” by the U.N. observer mission’s suspension, it said on Saturday, calling on the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution under Chapter VII to arm the monitors.
“At a time when the regime is committing its worst crimes against the Syrian people, we are surprised by the U.N. observers’ decision to suspend their work, because of what they described as ‘an intensification’ of violence,” the Syrian National Council (SNC) said in a statement obtained by AFP.
The SNC’s statement said the U.N. monitors had failed “to pinpoint the source or type of violence in question.”
Suspending the mission, the statement added, “serves the criminal regime’s interests, and denies the Syrian people the little protection they had.”
The SNC reiterated its calls for the U.N. Security Council to “intervene quickly, and to pass a resolution under Chapter VII (of the U.N. Charter) to arm the U.N. monitors, so that they can defend themselves ... and ensure that the regime stops killing, while enforcing (U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s) peace plan.”
U.N. observers sent to Syria to monitor an April 12 ceasefire that never took hold have suspended their mission, Major General Robert Mood said on Saturday.