U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are scheduled to meet in New York next week while an environment of tension persists in Europe and the Middle East. However, the White House and the Kremlin are of different opinions regarding what the focus of this meeting is. While the White House has said that the priority of the meeting is eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed forces are engaged in a battle with the Kiev government; Moscow has said that the focus of the talks will be Syria, where Russia’s support for President Bashar-al-Assad can be reflected by Russia beefing up its military presence with combat aircraft, tanks and other equipment.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said, “Of course, the primary topic will be Syria.” Whether Ukraine will be discussed at the meeting is a possibility “if time allows.” White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said the meeting was requested by Putin. “When the president sits down with President Putin, the top item on his agenda will be Ukraine,” Earnest said.
“It is fair for you to say that based on the repeated requests we’ve seen from the Russians, that they are quite interested in having a conversation with President Obama,” Earnest said, as reported by the New York Times. Obama decided “that it was worth it at this point to engage with President Putin in a face-to-face meeting to see if the interests of the United States could be advanced.”
Other than some brief encounters at an Asian economic summit in November, the two presidents have not met each other. Speaking over the telephone at least thrice since then, their last formal meeting was around the time of a D-Day commemoration in France in 2014. As reported by Reuters, a famous photo of the two presidents looking detached and glum appeared in one encounter in June 2013. The focus of that meeting was Syria. According to Earnest, Putin had displayed a similar body language in a photograph after he met with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “President Putin was striking a now-familiar pose of less-than-perfect posture, an unbuttoned jacket, and knees spread far apart, to convey a particular image,” Earnest said.
Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer on Russia who is now at the Brookings Institution, said, “It’s a tough one for Obama. He has to meet with him given the circumstances. But it’s not very clear what we’re going to get out of it. The Russians have made their position crystal clear: They want to have a central say about what happens.”
Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president, said the meeting will also focus on understanding what the two sides stand on regarding the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. “President Obama will seek to understand what the Russian government means when it states it is enhancing or increasing its military involvement in Syria in order to enhance efforts to counter ISIL,” Rhodes said.
Recently, Russia has increased its military presence in Syria. It has sent troops, weapons and supplies to the Syrian coast; and while Russia maintains that it is only trying to protect its ally, American officials believe that it is the beginning of a Russian air base. Obama plans to convey to Putin that “doubling down” on support to Syria is “a losing bet” on a nation severely ravaged by war.
“The likely consequence of them doing so it only to deepen and expand the ongoing crisis in that country,” Earnest said. “That doesn’t serve the interests of either the Russian people or the American people.”
According to USA Today, Obama will meet Putin on Monday afternoon, which will be hours after he addresses the United Nations General Assembly. A bilateral meeting with the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is also scheduled for Monday.
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