Eyebrows have been raised in both Washington and Moscow following the announcement that President Barack Obama will not attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The official reason for Obama's absence at the annual conclave, which is to be held in the eastern Russian city of Vladivostok on September 1-6, clashes with the Democratic Party's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is expected to accept his party's presidential nomination.
Nonetheless, the timing of the announcement is bound to cause ripples given that it follows less than two days after newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would not to attend a Group of Eight (G8) meeting in Camp David, Maryland, later this week.
Even though both the United States and Russia stressed that this pronouncement should not be interpreted as a snub, it did give rise to all sorts of speculation, especially as the White House had switched the G8 meeting from the longstanding Chicago venue to the Camp David retreat, seemingly to appear more welcoming to Putin and other leaders.
Despite strong denials from both camps, the White House's latest announcement is bound to spawn rumors and conjecture. Obama's relationship with the new Russian president has been under intense scrutiny, not least because of the latter's much publicized fierce opposition to a planned NATO missile-defense shield in Europe.
Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, spun the president's decision saying, "It was not a surprise, and it does not at all feel like a snub. It was something we understood and understand," Carney told reporters, according to a White House transcript. The former newsman dismissed speculation that Putin had used the formation of the new government — which is in reality a job delegated to Prime Minister Medvedev - to mask other reasons, such as fall-out over police violence directed at Russian dissident this week. Echoing Putin's rationale, Carney said "President Putin was just sworn into office and is obviously forming a government, and the [U.S.] president absolutely understands that." "We're not disappointed," assured Carney. "The president and President Putin had a very good conversation. And the president looks forward to meeting with Prime Minister Medvedev at the G8 and looks forward to meeting — his first meeting with President Putin — in one month."
Official Russians were also quick to squash speculation over a possible rift between the two leaders. The first deputy chairman of Russia's State Duma Committee on International Affairs, for example, said "I know that there are people in Russia and the United States who believe the American president is reacting to the Russian president's position," Andrei Klimov told Russia's state-owned RT news network. "But I personally believe that the official explanations given by both parties are sufficient and there is no need to make any assumptions, fuelling additional scandals," he said.
Nonetheless, even though Klimov stressed that Russia understood and accepted Obama's reasons for not attending APEC, he did seem to suggest that the American leader could have gone to the Vladivostok meeting if he had really wanted to. "I still believe that the U.S. president technically could have taken half a day to visit the neighboring country and participate in the APEC summit." Russia has spent billions in improvements at Vladivostok and may have wanted to show it off to the world.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who was until last week president of Russia, will attend the G8 summit in Putin’s place. Putin and Obama are still scheduled to finally meet on neutral ground at the sidelines of a June 18-29 G20 summit at the luxurious Los Cabos resort in Mexico.