ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — Leaders of the Group of 20 nations started meeting five years ago at the height of the economic crisis. Now, with the banking crisis apparently under control, politics may overtake this year’s annual meeting of the G-20.
Jobs and global economic growth are the topics of the two-day meeting of 20 world leaders that begins Thursday in St. Petersburg.
The leaders represent 80 percent of the world’s economy. But this year’s meeting threatens to be hijacked by debate over a country that accounts for less than one percent of the world’s economy - Syria.
For more than 40 years, Syria has been a client state of Moscow. But now, U.S. President Barack Obama is drawing up plans to attack military assets in Syria, for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people last month.
On Wednesday, as presidential jets were landing in St. Petersburg, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20, broke with protocol and sharply criticized Washington.
With U.S. congressional support falling into place for air strikes on Syria, Putin accused the U.S. Congress of “sanctioning aggression.”
The Russian leader said he watched U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testify before Congress about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Putin’s reaction: “He is telling an outright lie, and he knows that he is lying.”
One Russian military official told Interfax that four Russian Navy ships are steaming toward Syria’s coast. A second military official said Russian anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles recently were delivered to Syria. He added: “What was done to Libya won't work this time around.”
Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg city councilman captured the sense of deep estrangement between Russia and the United States.
"Without our straight position, our and Chinese position, you would destroy Syria a month ago," said Milonov.
Indeed, the close ties between Russia and China are to be on display at the G-20 meeting.
Kremlin aides say President Putin does not have the time for a one-on-one meeting with President Obama. But they have scheduled a special meeting for Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The U.S. president already had called off plans for talks with Putin, after Russia allowed fugitive U.S. government contractor and secrets leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum.
China, Brazil, India and other developing nations had hoped that the summit would deal with the impact of tighter U.S. money policies. With the U.S. Federal Reserve expected to raise interest rates, investors have pulled billions of dollars out of Brazil, India, Indonesia, Turkey and South Africa, driving down their stock markets and weakening their currencies.
But interest rates are expected to take a back seat as the Russian and U.S. presidents lobby for their rival approaches to Syria.