President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin will use their meeting today, the first since Putin returned to Russia's top job, to claim leverage in a mutually dependent but volatile relationship.
Obama needs Russia to help, or at least not hurt, U.S. foreign policy aims in the Mideast and Afghanistan. Putin needs the United States as a foil for his argument that Russia doesn't get its due as a great power.
Obama and Putin are set to meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic gathering in Mexico that will otherwise focus largely on the European economic crisis. Greece's fate as part of the eurozone may be sealed as Obama and other world leaders meet, and the 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 several U.S. foreign policy goals. Chief among them are the international effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon and a smooth shutdown of the Afghanistan war. Brutal attacks on anti-government protesters in Syria and the threat of civil war in the Mideast nation pose the most immediate crisis. In the longer term, Obama wants Russia's continued cooperation in nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
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 to the administration.
Things got off to a rocky start this spring, when Obama pointedly withheld a customary congratulatory phone call to Putin until days after his election. Putin appeared to snub Obama by skipping the smaller and weightier Group of Eight meeting that Obama hosted last month at Camp David.
"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."
Syria is at the top of the list of differences, especially on the question of whether the crisis can be resolved without deposing President Bashar Assad. Diplomatic hopes have rested on Washington and Moscow agreeing on a transition plan that would end the four-decades of rule by the Assad family. Russia is seen as the best broker for a deal that could give Assad political refuge.
So far, Moscow has said no.
There is no formal meeting on Syria scheduled at the G-20, but U.S. and other diplomats have said they expect Syria to be a main topic in other settings.