SAN JOSE DEL CABO, Mexico – President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin need one another, an uncomfortable truth for the superpower leader waging a tough re-election campaign and the newly elected Russian leader who is deeply suspicious of the United States.
The two men will use their meeting Monday, the first since Putin returned to Russia's top job, to claim leverage. Much of the rest of the Group of 20 economic meeting will be devoted to the European fiscal crisis and the fate of Greece as a part of the euro zone. A pro-euro candidate is trying to form a coalition government following elections Sunday, but the anti-austerity second-place party has refused.
"I expect that it will be a candid discussion, it will get down to business," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said ahead of the lengthy morning meeting between Obama and Putin.
"We'll be able to sustain cooperation in some areas, we'll have differences in other areas, and we'll work to try to bridge those differences."
Obama was also meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel later Monday. Germany is playing a leading role brokering a solution to Europe's debt crisis.
The G-20 gathering is a natural forum for sideline discussions of the urgent crisis in Syria as well as diplomatic efforts to head off a confrontation with Iran. Russia is a linchpin in world efforts to resolve both crises, and to U.S. goals for the smooth shutdown of the war in Afghanistan. In the longer term, Obama wants Russia's continued cooperation in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Obama made a special project of Russia in his first term and arguably needs Moscow's help even more if he wins a second one. He is trying to avoid a distracting public spat with Russia during this election year, as suggested by an overheard remark to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March. Obama told Medvedev he would have more flexibility to answer Russian complaints about a U.S.-built missile defense shield in Europe after the November election.
Things got off to a rocky start with Putin, when Obama pointedly withheld a customary congratulatory phone call to Putin until days after his May election. Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the smaller and weightier Group of Eight meeting that Obama hosted later that month at Camp David, and a planned Oval Office welcome for the new Russian leader.
The rescheduled Obama-Putin meeting comes the same day as Moscow hosts an international negotiating session with Iran. Russia has gone along with U.N. Security Council efforts to tighten some penalties against Iran because of questions about its nuclear weapons ambitions, but has blocked the harshest punishments. Still, the United States needs Russia's participation to lend legitimacy to the argument that Iran faces broad international condemnation. Iran usually paints the dispute over its nuclear program as a confrontation with the U.S. and its ally Israel.
Brutal attacks on anti-government protesters in Syria and the threat of civil war in the Mideast nation pose the most immediate crisis.
Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the four-decade Assad family rule. Russia, as Syria's longtime ally and trading partner, is seen as the best broker for a deal that could give Syrian President Bashar Assad political refuge. So far, Moscow has said no.
Pressure increased on Russia over the weekend, when the United Nations suspended its unarmed monitoring mission in Syria out of concern for the monitors' safety. The move was widely interpreted as a challenge to Russia to intervene with Assad to preserve a U.N. role Moscow sees as a brake on any armed foreign intervention.
The United States has refused to arm anti-Assad rebels in part to avoid a proxy fight in which Iran, Russia and others arm one side and the U.S. and Sunni Arab states arm the other. Opposition groups estimate 14,000 people have died in violence that the U.S. fears is sliding into civil war.
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.