By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico in their first bilateral talks since Putin returned for a third term in May.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Obama said the two leaders agreed on the need to build on their success in areas of shared interest, “even though there are areas of disagreement.”
Washington has been seeking Russia’s help in solving the urgent political and humanitarian crisis in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are said to have killed an estimated 14,000 people during a 15-month-old uprising.
So far, Russia has resisted joining international calls for Assad to leave power, remaining loyal to its last remaining ally in the Middle East. It has protected Assad’s regime from international sanctions over its violent crackdown on protests.
The joint statement issued by the two leaders was notable for the fact that it didn’t call for Assad to step aside. The text instead called “for an immediate cessation of all violence” and expressed “full support for the efforts of UN/League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy Kofi Annan, including moving forward on political transition to a democratic, pluralistic political system…”
It added that Washington and Moscow “are united in the belief that the Syrian people should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future.”
As the two leaders met, a Russian news agency reported that two Russian Navy ships are preparing to sail to Syria with marines who will protect Russian citizens and a Russian military base there.
Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Russian Navy official as saying that the two amphibious landing vessels, “Nikolai Filchenkov” and “Caesar Kunikov,” will be heading shortly to the Syrian port of Tartus.
Syria has been a major customer of Soviet and Russian weapons for some 40 years.
Moscow also has continued to provide Syria with arms, despite Western calls for a halt in supplies.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton harshly criticized Russia last week, accusing Moscow of “dramatically” escalating the crisis in Syria by sending attack helicopters there.
The State Department later admitted the helicopters were actually refurbished ones already owned by the Assad regime, but Russian anger over her comment exacerbated tensions before Obama and Putin met.
Obama put special emphasis on repairing U.S. relations with Russia when he came into office in 2009, declaring a “reset.” Since then, the two countries have cooperated on the war in Afghanistan and in other areas of shared strategic interest. Obama and former President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, had a convivial relationship both on and off the world stage.
But relations have been on a downward slide for the past several months and Putin’s return to the Kremlin isn’t expected to help matters.
Obama didn’t phone Putin to congratulate him until days after his May election. Then Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the Group of Eight (G8) meeting that Obama hosted in May.
On June 18, Obama said he was confident that “tensions” between the United States and Russia can be resolved.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, U.S. and Russian negotiators — together with representatives of Britian, France, Germany, and China — met for the first day of a two-day meeting with Iran over its suspect nuclear program.
Russia has participated in United Nations efforts to sanction Iran over its lack of transparency in a program suspected by the West of hiding weapons development, but has blocked harsher penalties.