Relations between Washington and the Kremlin have turned toxic on the eve of President Obama's visit to the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Secretary of State John Kerry a liar — and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel charged that Russia had supplied Syrian strongman Bashar Assad with the chemical weapons that were used to kill more than 1,000 people last month.
Meanwhile, Putin has denounced a potential U.S. attack on Syria as a violation of international law, and House Speaker John Boehner declined on Wednesday to meet with Russian diplomats who had hoped to directly lobby Congress to undercut President Barack Obama's resolution on limited military strikes on Syria.
And, for his part, President Obama told reporters in Stockholm that the two countries’ relations have “hit a wall.” He is due in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown, on Thursday.
The two heads of state have spent recent months sniping at each other, with the U.S. president comparing Putin to a bored schoolboy and the Russian leader forcing an irritated Obama to wait a half-hour for a meeting on the sidelines at last year's G-20 summit meeting in Mexico.
Tensions were further strained last month when Russia granted temporary asylum to fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked information on the agency's vast telephone and Internet surveillance programs.
Obama canceled a meeting with Putin in Moscow en route to this week's G-20 summit over the Snowden decision.
“This is basically as bad as it gets,” said James Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University and the Russia director for the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton. “You typically don’t have leaders who so openly criticize each other, who openly disdain each other.”
In speaking to his security council on Wednesday, Putin said that Kerry was lying when he denied that al-Qaida was fighting with the Syrian opposition in that country's civil war.
The Russian leader said that he recalled watching a congressional debate in which Kerry was asked about al-Qaida, and he denied that it was operating in Syria, even though he was aware of the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group.
"This was very unpleasant and surprising for me," Putin said. "We talk to them (the Americans), and we assume they are decent people, but he is lying — and he knows that he is lying. This is sad."
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on the Syrian resolution, Hagel suggested that Russia was a possible source of the chemical weapons that Syria used in the Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs in Damascus.
In response to a question by GOP Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, Hagel said, "Well, there's no secret that the Assad regime has had chemical weapons — significant stockpiles of chemical weapons …
"… From a particular country?" Wilson interrupted, The Atlantic reports
" … Well, the Russians supply them, others are supplying them, with those chemical weapons," Hagel responded. "They make some themselves."
The Pentagon later issued a statement saying that "Hagel was referring to the well-known conventional arms relationship between Syria and Russia."
"The Syrian regime has a decades-old largely indigenous chemical weapons program," the Pentagon said. "Currently, Russia provides the Syrian regime a wide variety of military equipment and support, some of which can be modified or otherwise used to support the chemical weapons program.
"We have publicly and privately expressed our concern over the destabilizing impact on the Syrian conflict and the wider region of continued military shipments to the Assad regime."
And Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, told CNN
that, "the speaker has declined the Russian embassy’s request that he meet with a delegation."
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington told CNN on Wednesday that diplomats sent an official request to congressional leaders to meet with them on Capitol Hill.
“We’re planning the visit,” an embassy spokesman told CNN. “We can’t tell you the exact time, but it will be next week.”
The delegation planned to lobby Congress on voting against the Syrian resolution.
It was not clear how other congressional leaders besides Boehner would respond to the request, but the delegation could face a cool reception if they arrive on Capitol Hill.
“At this particular point, my understanding has been that relations between members of Congress and the Russian parliament have been very sour,” Richard Lugar, the former Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.
The former Indiana senator is known for his work with Russian officials.
“I don’t think a delegation from Russia will make any difference in terms of congressional votes,” Lugar added. “But at the same time, there may be the possibility that dialogue could lead to other positive things.”
But more broadly, the chill between the United States and Russia on several fronts — particularly among these nations' leaders — could easily complicate American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, said Fiona Hill, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and the former U.S. national intelligence officer on Russia, responsible for coordinating high-level assessments.
“Given the current state of the relationship and the mentality of Putin, they’re more likely than not to be the spoiler in any critical area where we’re going to make progress” and they’re involved, Hill said. “That’s the real tragedy.”
Meanwhile, Russia is temporarily bolstering its naval presence in the Syrian region to improve its surveillance capability over U.S. ships and submarines deployed there and to ensure security for Russian citizens residing in Syria, according to a Russian official who asked not to be named.
Obama said on Wednesday at a news conference in Stockholm, where he is visiting on his way to St. Petersburg, that “we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress” on critical issues.
Still, he said he had not “written off” future areas where U.S. and Russian interests might intersect, and he shrugged off the deterioration in relations.
“We should be candid about differences, but shouldn’t sugarcoat them,” Obama said.
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.
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