Vladimir Putin has the home field advantage. As the host of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, he can control the images and the logistics of the meeting of the world's most important industrialized and emerging economies inside the Constantine Palace, also known as the "Russian Versailles." He can hardly wait to show it off, complete with its glistening hardwood floors, to Barack Obama. The G-20, Putin has said, will provide "a good platform" to discuss the problems in Syria.
The irony is that it is Putin himself who is so vehemently objecting to such diplomatic solutions.
The political frontlines have been established. On Wednesday night, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval for a limited military strike, though the House of Representatives hasn't yet voted on the issue. In St. Petersburg, Obama is expected to seek international support for his policy course.
Putin, on the other hand, believes that he can further isolate Obama by forcing an "international referendum" on the American line of possible intervention in Syria, Russian expert and National Security Council staffer Andrew Weiss told the US website Politico. "This whole trip has become a total headache," he said.
Even without the tensions over Syria, US-Russian relations were already in a shambles. Obama cancelled a planned bilateral meeting with Putin after Russia granted asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Instead, the US president plans to meet with gay activists in St. Petersburg -- a deliberate affront to Putin now that Russia's anti-homosexual laws and the mistreatment of gays and lesbians in the country have become a major subject of international debate.
The "restart" Obama had wanted in US-Russia relations has instead become an ongoing series of mistakes and misunderstandings.
The frost in relations began in 2011 during the international intervention in Libya. Russia had not opposed a "humanitarian" deployment in the United Nations Security Council, but the Kremlin felt duped when the mission quickly mutated into one of regime change. "The Russians felt they had been played for suckers on Libya," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the New York Times this week. The same article quoted an American official stating that Putin is "dug in" on the "idea we will never have another Libya."
Obama Courts France and China
Poor US-Russia relations have become particularly obvious and problematic over the course of the Syria crisis. And there is more to Washington's reservations about Putin than the fact that Moscow is Syrian President Bashar Assad's closest ally. Almost as an aside, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared on Wednesday in Congress that Russia had provided Syria with chemical weapons.
Putin himself has described the claim that Assad deployed poison gas as "absurd." In an interview with the Associated Press and the Russian TV station First Channel, he said he could not rule out a military strike against the Assad regime. But he said this could only be done with the approval of the UN Security Council, where Russia has made clear it will block any such resolution. Putin is clearly playing a game of cat and mouse.
In St. Petersburg, Obama will likely negotiate with others to apply pressure on Putin. For example, he is meeting separately with French President François Holland, who supports a military strike. Notably, the British parliament rejected the option of a military strike put on the table by one of Obama's most important allies, Prime Minister David Cameron.
Obama is also expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, a politician who also rejects a military strike and is blocking such proposals at the UN Security Council.
'Credibility on the Line'
Obama's journey to St. Petersburg began with a stopover in Stockholm. On Wednesday, the US president made a diplomatic courtesy call in the Swedish capital. The visit involved a series of bilateral niceties: a meeting with Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, a tour of a local synagogue and a dinner. Cheering Swedes lined the streets.
But the grim topic of the civil war in Syria was on the agenda, too. At a press conference with Reinfeldt, Obama came out with another argument in favor of military action against the Assad regime. Obama said it was not only him, but the world that had drawn a "red line" against chemical weapons use. "The international community's credibility is on the line," he said.
Obama's intention is to position the Syrian conflict, in which he is personally invested, as a global responsibility -- very likely a taste of what is to come during his visit to St. Petersburg.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the United Nations, will also make an appearance in St. Petersburg -- mainly to lobby for the inclusion of the UN Security Council in the handling of the conflict. This approach was already tangible in Stockholm. "Let us place our hopes with the United Nations," Reinfeldt said at the press conference.
One could be forgiven for forgetting the actual purpose of the St. Petersburg summit -- to tackle the issue of ongoing financial market instability. But the issue will at least be addressed in the summit's closing statement, in which "a collective objective of achieving strong, sustainable and balanced growth" is mentioned. The statement, after all, has already been largely written.