The Group of 20 Summit, beginning Thursday in St. Petersburg, was supposed to focus on global economics, but it is expected that the Syria crisis will dominate discussions among world leaders as they gather in Russia.
US President Barack Obama plans to lobby world leaders to support a strike on Syria as a response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in August. So far, only French President Francois Hollande has said his country would back a US strike.
“A key part of the economic plan for this summit was to send a message of confidence to world markets,” John Kirton, co-director of the University of Toronto’s G20 Research Group, told the Globe & Mail. “If the message that is sent through the media from St. Petersburg is that the G20 leaders disagree on Syria, that’s a negative.”
Among the economic tasks facing the G20 nations: stabilizing countries weakened by the 2008 recession, promoting private investment in infrastructure projects and creating an automated international tax information system to help curb tax evasion.
It is likely that Russia, which has concerns about US monetary policy and is keen to stimulate growth in its own country, will attempt to steer the conversation back to economics.
“They are not interested in big scandals,” Nikita Lomagin, a professor of political science from the European University of St. Petersburg told the Financial Times. “They want to see their economic agenda realized.”
Obama is scheduled to hold private meetings with Hollande, China's President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a White House official told USA Today.
With Xi, Obama is expected to talk about North Korea, cyber-security, human rights, climate change and bilateral trade and investment as well as Syria.
Xi is also scheduled to have a sideline meeting with Putin to discuss expanding trade between the two counties. Currently, China is a major buyer of Russian weapons and imports Russian oil and gas. Xi has said the Chinese-Russian relationship is “the best relationship between major countries,” noting that the two countries hold "similar or identical positions on key international and regional issues."
While a formal bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is not on Obama’s agenda, the two presidents could grab some time between meetings to speak, a Kremlin representative told the Financial Times.
“Being in the same forum and under the same roof definitely they will have a chance to chat to each other,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said. “If they take a decision to have a more lengthy conversation then they will have a chance to do that. But the schedule is very loaded.”
The US-Russia relationship has deteriorated over the past few months as the two countries have disagreed over Syria, Russia’s new anti-gay laws, and Russia providing asylum to Edward Snowden, the fugitive contractor who leaked National Security Agency secrets.
Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported that the summit organizers even decided to write the seating chart in the Latin alphabet rather than Russia’s Cyrillic alphabet to put some distance between Obama and Putin.
If the Cyrillic alphabet had been used, the presidents of Russia (Rossiya) and the United States (SShA) would have been separated only by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. In English, the leaders of Russia and the United States are separated by the leaders of South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom.