ST. PETERSBURG — President Obama arrived in this czarist-era capital on Thursday for an international summit officially focused on economics but unofficially absorbed by America’s growing estrangement with Russia and looming confrontation with Syria.
After a one-day stop in Sweden, Obama joined other leaders of the Group of 20 nations at a time when he is preparing to launch a military strike against the Syrian government without much overt international support. Obama recognized that he would not find consensus here in St. Petersburg but hoped at least to bolster allies who do favor action.
His biggest challenge will be the host of the meeting, President Vladimir Putin, who has used increasingly tough language in recent days. Putin said in an interview with the Associated Press and Russian state television that it was “completely ridiculous” to conclude that Syrian forces were responsible for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21, and he said Secretary of State John Kerry “is lying and knows he is lying” about Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria.
The two presidents ignored the tension in their first encounter of the day. When Obama’s armored limousine pulled up to Constantine Palace Thursday afternoon, he emerged and strode over to a waiting Putin, who was greeting all of the visiting leaders one by one. The two shook hands and had businesslike smiles for each other, then turned to the news media cameras and smiled more broadly. But neither grabbed the other’s elbow or patted a back as they often do with other leaders.
Others besides the Russians in St. Petersburg are skeptical about Obama’s Syria intentions. China’s leadership backs Russia in resisting action by the UN Security Council and warned Thursday that military intervention would drive up oil prices and slow economic growth.
“Military action would definitely have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on the oil price,” said Zhu Guangyao, the Chinese vice finance minister.
Beyond France, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, Obama may find few here who will vocally back a limited military strike against the government of President Bashar Assad. White House officials said other countries are supportive without being as public about it or at least would agree that Assad needs to be held accountable in some fashion. But Obama had no plans to seek a formal endorsement from the leaders.
“We would not anticipate every member of the G-20 agreeing about the way forward in Syria, particularly given the Russian position,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One. Obama will “explain our current thinking” and explore what “political and diplomatic support they may express for our efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable.”
The tension over Syria has exacerbated an already fractious moment between the United States and Russia. After Moscow last month granted temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who disclosed secret surveillance programs, Obama canceled plans to stop in Moscow first for a meeting with Putin before the summit and opted against even a standard courtesy call on his host in St. Petersburg.
The two will inevitably see each other and even talk on the sidelines of the official meetings here while everyone watches their body language.
The Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported that the Russian government had changed the seating chart in a way that would move the two leaders farther apart, with five leaders between them instead of just one. But by the time they sat down, the seating chart seemed to have been scrambled again, with the US and Russian presidents separated by just two other leaders.
The government did not roll out major figures to greet Obama upon his arrival at the St. Petersburg airport. Upon landing Thursday, Obama was welcomed for his second visit as president to Russia by the Foreign Ministry’s protocol officer, the deputy regional administrator, and the vice governor of St. Petersburg.
Obama met Thursday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who has tried to stay out of the Syria dispute.
“I certainly look forward to continuously and closely working with you to improve the situation on the ground,” Abe said as the meeting started.
Obama said he would raise Syria during their meeting.
“I also look forward to having an extensive conversation about the situation in Syria and I think our joint recognition that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only a tragedy but also a violation of international law that must be addressed,” he said.
Obama planned separate meetings Friday with President François Hollande of France, his strongest supporter on Syria, and President Xi Jinping of China.