WASHINGTON – Russian President Vladimir Putin is skipping a planned visit to the United States this month for an economic summit and a much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama, the White House announced Wednesday.
The Russian leader told Obama by phone that he is unable to join the other leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations meeting outside Washington on May 18-19 because he needs to finish work setting up his new Cabinet, the White House said. The Obama administration had moved the gathering to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland from the planned venue in Chicago partly to accommodate Putin.
Putin's change of heart appeared to take the White House by surprise. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon had traveled to Moscow last week to discuss the G-8 agenda and other issues with Putin and other leaders.
There was no immediate confirmation of the change in plans from the Kremlin.
Putin took power this week, returning after six years to a post he had previously held for two terms. He made sharp criticism of the United States a central theme in his election, but it is not clear whether he will pull back from cooperation with the United States in several areas begun by former President Dmitry Medvedev.
"The two presidents reiterated their interest in the sustained high-level dialogue that has characterized the reset of relations and the substantial progress of the last three years," since Obama took office, the White House said in a statement outlining the phone call Wednesday.
The statement listed several areas of cooperation such as nuclear security and nonproliferation, the war in Afghanistan and Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. It did not mention whether the leaders discussed areas of disagreement, such as the international response to violence in Syria.
Medvedev, who changed places with his mentor Putin as Russia's prime minister, will fill in for Putin at the G-8 meeting, the White House said. Obama made headlines at his last meeting with Medvedev at a nuclear security summit in South Korea in March, when Obama was overheard saying he would have more flexibility to work with Russia on missile defense after the U.S. presidential election.
Republicans pounced on the remark, saying the president has a hidden agenda that could include concessions to the Russians if he wins re-election.
Russian opposition to U.S. and NATO plans for a missile defense shield in Europe was the subtext of a surprise announcement earlier this spring of a change in venue for the G-8 meeting. The summit was long planned to take place adjacent to a larger summit of NATO leaders in Chicago.
Putin let it be known that he did not want to attend the NATO summit, as Russian leaders sometimes do by invitation, or engage NATO leaders on the missile issue, U.S. and other diplomats said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy. The missile defense plan is on the NATO agenda for Chicago, although most of the summit discussions are likely to center on Afghanistan.
The switch to Camp David was partly an attempt by the U.S. to appear welcoming to Putin, so that he could meet quietly with European and other large powers at the dawn of his presidency without the awkward juxtaposition with NATO and the missile shield issue, the diplomats said.
The White House said Obama and Putin agreed to meet next month on the sidelines of another economic gathering, the larger G-20 summit in Mexico.