Syria is not formally on the agenda of the leaders’ summit in St. Petersburg that begins on Thursday, but it will likely elbow its way onto the table, given the participation of key players, including all five permanent U.N. Security Council members as well as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
“In the near future we will meet in St. Petersburg,” President Vladimir Putin said over the weekend. “I hope that the president of the United States will be among the participants, and we will certainly have the opportunity to talk in an expanded format, including about the Syrian problem.
“Of course, the G20 is not a formal legal authority,” he told reporters on a visit to Russia’s far-east. “It cannot act as a substitute platform for the U.N. Security Council – the only one able to authorize the use of force. But it is a good platform to discuss the problem. Why not take advantage of it?”
Obama was scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with Putin on the G20 sidelines, but the White House canceled it early last month, citing the Snowden affair and other issues including missile defense.
Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told the Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily on Monday that Putin “naturally, will greet Obama, shake hands with him, and then, we’ll see.” Although they do not have a one-on-one meeting scheduled, he said, “during the summit, they will have many opportunities to talk.”
Senior Russian lawmaker Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the parliamentary committee on international affairs, said he expects Obama will try to use the G20 gathering to justify an attack on Syria.
“Whatever the summit’s program would have been, it will now primarily be about Syria,” he said on his Twitter account.
Citing reports that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz has entered the Red Sea, Pushkov said Obama was signaling that “the war was only postponed, not canceled, and that he is determined to fight.”
Obama said Saturday he will seek congressional approval to use military force against the Assad regime in response to an August 21 chemical weapons attack, which the administration says was carried out by the regime and killed more than 1,400 people.
As relations between Washington and Moscow continue to deteriorate over the Syrian crisis, customary diplomatic language is making way for blunter words.
In his weekend remarks in Vladivostok, Putin accused the U.S. of “a lack of respect” for its international partners, and repeated his assertion that the anti-Assad opposition, not the regime, was responsible for the attack near Damascus two weeks ago.
“I am convinced that [the attack] is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want the support of powerful members of the international community, especially the United States,” he said. “I have no doubt about this.”
‘Game of secrecy’
During his round of television talk shows on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry told ABC’s This Week the U.S. government had “sent people over to Russia who provided evidence we had” relating to the earlier use of chemical weapons in Syria, “and they chose – I literally mean chose – not to believe it or to at least acknowledge publicly.”
Kerry said evidence of the Aug. 21 attack “is going to be overwhelming. If the president of Russia chooses yet again to ignore it, that’s his choice.”
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hit back during a speech in Moscow on Monday, acknowledging that evidence had been produced, but questioning its value.
“We were shown certain pieces of evidence that did not contain anything concrete, neither geographical locations, nor names, nor evidence that samples had been taken by professionals,” he told an audience at the Moscow State University of International Relations.
Lavrov said what the U.S, British and French have shown about chemical weapons use “does not convince us at all.”
“There are no supporting facts, there is only repetitive talk in the vein of ‘we know for sure,’” the pro-Kremlin Russia Today quoted him as saying. “And when we ask for further clarification, we receive the following response: ‘You are aware that this is classified information, therefore we cannot show it to you.’ So there are still no facts.”
Lavrov accused the Western government of playing a “game of secrecy.”
He also objected to Kerry’s latest comments, saying it was “very strange to hear” his American counterpart say that the U.S. had produced irrefutable evidence implicating the regime and claiming that “Russians consciously refused to admit this fact.”
Putin on Monday voiced support for a proposal for a Russian parliamentary delegation to visit Washington to urge members of the U.S. Congress to oppose military intervention in Syria.
The matter was discussed at a meeting attended by Valentina Matviyenko, chairman of the upper chamber, the Federation Council, and Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house, the State Duma.
The U.S. House and Senate will hold hearings this week on the Syrian crisis, with Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel due to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday and Wednesday (one open session, one closed) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are also on the list of witnesses for the Senate hearings.
Meanwhile, in a statement unrelated to Syria but indicative of the chill in bilateral relations, Russia’s foreign ministry on Monday warned citizens with grounds to believe that American law enforcement agencies have legal claims against them to avoid visiting countries that have extradition agreements with the United States.
It accused the U.S. of practically kidnapping wanted Russians and convicting them on flimsy evidence, citing several recent cases including the extradition to the U.S. of a suspected arms dealer arrested in Lithuania and a suspected cyber-criminal arrested in the Dominican Republic.
The ministry also brought up an earlier case the Kremlin remains vexed about – the 2009 arrest in Thailand of arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was extradited to the U.S., convicted of arms smuggling and sentenced last year to 25 years’ imprisonment.