It was just after 5 p.m. when the black Cadillac from the US arrived at the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg. Host Vladimir Putin was waiting to receive his guest, US President Barack Obama. Their greeting lasted but a few seconds, but Obama was careful to smile broadly for the cameras, and Putin smiled too. The pair are political professionals after all.
Later, though, the grins were nowhere to be found. Obama, the Associated Press wrote ahead of the G-20 summit in Putin's hometown, was visiting "the lion's den of Russia." And he came with a clear mission: He wanted to generate international support for a military strike against Syria. Putin, though, was intent on preventing exactly that.
As such, an impasse seemed unavoidable as the leaders from the world's 20 most important industrial and developing economies sat down to dinner in Peterhof Palace. Just prior the start of the summit, Putin announced that Syria would be discussed at dinner after all, contrary to the official agenda, which had foreseen an exchange of ideas on sustainable economic development. The change seemed to reflect the Russian president's certainty that he would not be backed into a corner during such a discussion; the majority of those present shared his skepticism of a military strike in Syria.
Dinner began an hour late and lasted for four hours, until well past midnight. Afterwards, there was a fireworks show and a concert ("La Traviata" from Giuseppe Verdi), but harmony was nowhere to be found. "The G-20 has just now finished the dinner session at which the divisions about Syria were confirmed," wrote Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in a tweet.
Obama argued once again in favor of a limited strike on Syria to penalize the regime of President Bashar Assad for the poison gas attack on Aug. 21 which killed over 1,400 people. For days, the US president has been insisting that the blatant violation of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention cannot go unpunished. Washington believes that a one-time strike is both appropriate and necessary -- and vital for the credibility of the international community.
Immune to Such Arguments
Putin, however, once again proved immune to such arguments. He continues to profess his doubts that his ally Assad was behind the poison gas attacks. Moscow insists that it isn't "logical," saying that there is no military reason for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. And Putin has been quick to disregard the evidence presented by the US, Britain, France and Germany, saying it wasn't substantive and that the Syrian rebels could just as easily be behind the attack.
St. Petersburg was once built by Peter the Great as a symbol of Russia's opening to the West. But on Thursday evening, it became the stage for yet another battle for supremacy between Washington and Moscow.
In this particular power struggle, most observers on the eve of the G-20 appeared to be on the side of the Kremlin. Pope Francis sent a letter demanding that a political solution be found to the Syrian conflict. Then China emphasized its opposition to a military strike, with Deputy Foreign Minister Zhu Guangyao saying that it would drive up the price of oil and endanger the global economy. Beijing's position was hardly a surprise; China has joined Russia in preventing several resolutions in the United Nations Security Council. But Putin's plan to isolate Obama seems to have worked.
During Thursday night's dinner, it became clear that, while all of those present condemn the use of poison gas, none of them seemed inclined to do anything about it. At the same time, though, few appeared interested in preventing the US from going it alone. Participants said that most believed an attack rested solely in the hands of the US Congress.
Meanwhile, the real arrows in the diplomatic battle between the two were being fired far away from St. Petersburg. In New York, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samatha Power made withering comments about Russia's role on the world stage on Thursday. Indicating that the US was prepared to move ahead without a Security Council resolution, she said that "Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities."
'Nail in the Coffin'
Meanwhile, Russian diplomats have accused the US of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and reject the idea of staging a military invention on the basis of humanitarian reasons. A US attack on Syria, said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Kremlin-funded international broadcaster Russia Today, would lead to "a total destabilization of the region." He said that an intervention without a UN mandate would be "another nail in the coffin of international law and international relations."
The fact that Obama plans on meeting with regime critics and gay and lesbian activists following the summit is seen as a provocation among Moscow's power elite. "In order to solve … the Syrian conflict, Obama should have turned to Russian with a request for cooperation," wrote the Russian paper Izvestia. "Instead he has only uttered nonsense about Russia in recent months and presented us as a regime from the Middle Ages ruled by a despot." Instead of focusing seriously on Syria, the paper wrote, Obama prefers to meet with gays.
Washington, for its part, has accused the Kremlin of rejecting every possible joint solution in the UN Security Council. Even the Syrian peace conference, which had originally been planned for summer, ultimately failed because Moscow has refused to back away from Assad. Putin's repudiation of evidence for Assad's complicity in the poison gas attack offered by Western intelligence agencies is seen in Washington as a cynical denial of reality. Moscow's claim that the rebels may have been responsible is completely "implausible," say Obama's advisors.
On the Line
On Thursday night, the discussion in Petershof Palace did little to break through this deadlock. Those opposed to a strike without a UN mandate were clearly in the majority. The Europeans were split. All EU countries believe that the use of chemical weapons should not go unpunished, but neither Germany nor Great Britain want to participate in a strike. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron both emphasized the need for a political solution in St. Petersburg on Thursday night. Only France has unconditionally sided with Obama, along with Australia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Russian broadcaster Rossiya closed its report from the first day of the G-20 by saying pathetically: "It will become clear as early as tomorrow evening whether the world's leading powers will adhere to international law or whether they will go separate ways."
Obama's perception of Russia, in any case, isn't likely to change. Even before he took off on his way to Europe, he said that US relations with Russia had "hit a wall."
The president, though, has more than just Russia to worry about when it comes to formulating a response to Syria. There is plenty of disagreement back at home too. To be sure, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave the green light for a military strike on Wednesday, and top Republicans and Democrats are supportive. But Obama is still battling for reliable majorities in the two houses of Congress. When Congress votes next week, Obama's credibility will be on the line.