Summit Lets Obama, Putin Size Up the Competition

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Putin's campaign included some of the strongest anti-American rhetoric from Moscow in a decade and he openly accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting protests against him. The Obama administration mostly tried to shrug it off, but Putin's return to the presidency makes it more likely that any help Russia provides in Syria, Iran or other matters will come at a cost.

U.S. strategy has favored flattery that may overstate Russia's influence, especially on Syria, and efforts to highlight areas where U.S. and Russian goals align.

Russia's membership in numerous world bodies and its veto power at the U.N. Security Council give it leverage beyond its economic or military power. Obama holds far greater power and both leaders know it, but Putin can be a spoiler and irritant.

"President Putin clearly is somebody who can articulate where he has differences with the United States, but we can also articulate where we have differences with Russia," Rhodes said. "And I think our assessment is that being candid with one another and clear with one another is in the best interest of the relationship. So because the relationship between the United States and Russia is in our interest, it's in Russia's interest, but also it's in the interest of the world community, because when we can work together on issues, again, it opens up the door to much better progress, whether you're talking about nonproliferation and nuclear security, whether you're talking about resolving regional tensions as in Syria, or whether you're talking about the global economy."

The White House tried to soften the blow of Clinton's accusation days before the G-20 meeting that Russia was equipping the Syrian government with attack helicopters that could be used against civilians. She later acknowledged they were only helicopters already owned by Syria that had been sent back to Russia for repairs, but Russia was already annoyed.

Russia insists that any arms it supplies to Syria are not being used to quell anti-government dissent that began more than a year ago, and has rebuffed efforts to impose an international arms embargo. Russia and Syria have a longstanding military relationship and Syria hosts Russia's only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea.

White House press secretary Jay Carney brushed aside questions last week about whether the U.S. might yank support for Russia's membership in World Trade Organization if Russia refuses to help on Syria. He underscored that the U.S. supports that core Russian goal, which will be a centerpiece of the talks.

"Putin is in a petulant sort of mood," said Russia scholar Mark N. Katz of George Mason University. "He's got all these grievances about American foreign policy and he's looking for us to satisfy him, and I don't think we're going to do that. No amount of bonhomie or talking nicely is going to fix that."

The Pew Research Center's newly released global public opinion survey gives Putin job approval ratings Obama can only dream of. About 72 percent of Russians have a favorable opinion of Putin, and a majority put more faith in a strong leader than in a democratic form of government. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said Russia deserves greater respect from other countries.

Despite that footing, tens of thousands of protesters thronged Moscow streets this past week in the first mass protest against Putin since he returned to the presidency in May. His tactics in cracking down on political opponents will make it difficult for Obama to play down longstanding U.S. complaints about human rights abuses. The Kremlin ordered the detention and interrogation of at least one activist and searches of others' homes last week.

Putin's own return to the presidency was far more certain than Obama's re-election chances. Despite their differences, Putin probably would prefer a second Obama term to a Mitt Romney presidency, Katz said, not least because the Republican challenger has called Russia the chief strategic enemy of the United States.