President Obama shouldn’t expect a warm welcome when he visits Russia this week for the scheduled G20 meeting in St. Petersburg.
Russian officials have dismissed the claim by American officials that the Syrian government ordered a chemical attack in August that caused hundreds of deaths as “rubbish.” And last week Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Obama’s position on Syria as “utter nonsense.” Adding a further dose of insult on the eve of the diplomatic meeting, a high-ranking Russian official, the vice chairman of the Russian lower house, the Duma, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is suggesting in interviews with Russian journalists that Obama should be stripped of his Nobel Peace Prize.
Already the U.S.-Russian relationship is at a nadir. In what was widely regarded a snub of Washington, the Russians last month granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker. Shortly after, Obama went on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to bash Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda.”
And with the G20 summit this week likely devoted to Syria, sparks are flying as the two countries square off over the contentious issue of possible airstrikes against President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime Moscow supports.
In Russia, observers believe it will be all but impossible for American officials to bring the Putin government around to Washington’s viewpoint on the proposed strikes. And judging by the state media’s coverage, they might be right.
“Obama Burnt His Peace Pipe,” the Kremlin’s main newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, declared in a headline, while the paper Izvestia reminisced about the “fake reasons” that led the U.S. to war in Iraq in 2003. And on state-run television, Russian experts suggest that Obama wants to bomb Syria not because the administration wants to punish Assad for reportedly attacking rebels and civilians with chemical weapons, but because Washington wants to raise oil prices to help American oil companies.
Yuri Krupnov, an analyst with the Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development, called Obama’s approach to Syria an “outlaw strategy” of making key decisions on war and peace for the entire planet. “Obama behaves as if he is in a Western movie, acting like a cowboy, pulling out his Colt to be the first one to shoot,” said Krupnov, whose think tank is affiliated with the Kremlin. “If the mass shooting begins, we Russians will also have to grab a Colt, and aim at the enemy, unfortunately.”
Inside the Kremlin, officials said they were “disappointed” by the call for strikes—and the deteriorating rapport between Moscow and Washington. “Our relationship with the U.S. has been growing colder and colder,” said the Duma deputy, Robert Schlegel. “If the U.S. Congress supports President Obama’s bully decision to get involved in a war in Syria, I can guarantee 100 percent that our relations with United States will grow much worse.”
On the streets of Moscow, however, there appears to be more sympathy for Obama and a possible campaign against the Syrian government. Earlier this week, the independent radio station Echo of Moscow ran a telephone and Internet survey, asking listeners whether the world’s superpower should get involved in military attacks against authorities who use weapons of mass destruction against their citizens. More than 75 percent of radio listeners agreed, though the radio station’s host, Olga Bychkova, was more equivocal. “I personally agree with Obama’s logic that terrorist Syrian authorities using such dreadful weapons against their people should be punished,” she said, adding: “But without bombing cities, by avoiding the war.”