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World & Nation

With Obama and Putin set to meet, U.N. gathering will be less of a party

Vladimir Putin

President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting in Russia’s Rostov region on Sept. 24. He is to meet with President Obama at the United Nations.

(Alexei Nikosky / AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama and other leaders had expected next week’s United Nations General Assembly gathering to mostly be a diplomatic celebration of the U.N.'s 70th birthday and the recently concluded landmark nuclear deal with Iran.

Instead, with confirmation Thursday that Obama will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.N. on Monday, the summit in New York is shaping up as a high-stakes squabble over the Syrian civil war that may illustrate the limits of world institutions and diplomacy.

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FOR THE RECORD

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Obama-Putin meeting: In some copies of the Sept. 25 Section A, and in an earlier online version, an article about the forthcoming meeting of President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations misstated the timing of a conversation between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. They spoke by phone after a U.N. meeting in 2013, not last year.

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“The party’s really been spoiled,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the nonpartisan European Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

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The annual General Assembly session is expected to draw more world leaders than ever before. Pope Francis will speak at the U.N. on Friday morning before many heads of state even arrive.

But the main event will come Monday when Obama, Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and other world leaders take turns on the podium to begin a debate on how to end Syria’s bloodletting, battle the violent extremist groups emerging from it and stem the flood of refugees and economic migrants flowing from it.

At the center will be Putin, whom the West has tried to isolate for the last year for his aggressive support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian leader is expected to bash the West for failing to roll back Islamic State fighters from Syria and Iraq, and to argue that Washington and its allies need to stop trying to oust his ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and focus instead on battling extremists.

A senior Obama administration official said Obama agreed to Putin’s request for a meeting “despite our profound differences with Moscow” over its support for Assad and its military role in Ukraine. The two leaders last sat down for formal talks in June 2013.

The planned “bilateral engagement,” as the White House called the meeting, is a clear step back for Obama’s efforts to isolate Putin. It marks a recognition instead that Putin can’t be ignored. He’ll be featured in a “60 Minutes” interview Sunday on the eve of the general debate.

Given the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the president believes that it would be irresponsible not to test whether he can make progress through high-level engagement with the Russians, said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the planning.

Despite Western sanctions against some of Putin’s top associates, his government has not pulled back from Ukraine. In the last three weeks, it has dramatically upped its ante in Syria by delivering heavy arms — including fighter jets, tanks, attack helicopters and surface-to-air missiles — to a military airfield in territory controlled by Assad.

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U.S. intelligence officials believe Moscow intends to use airstrikes to help prop up Assad’s embattled government, and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke by phone this month for the first time with his Russian counterpart to try to ensure that U.S. and Russian aircraft or forces don’t inadvertently clash in Syria.

When he takes to the podium Monday, Putin is expected to argue that the Western and Arab governments should stop trying to oust Assad and instead join a rival coalition led by Russia, Syria and Iran to halt Islamic State and work out a peace deal.

That would be a nonstarter for the White House and its allies.

Russian diplomats have tried to line up support for a U.N. Security Council statement to endorse Putin’s view of the fight, and give an international blessing to the Kremlin’s military buildup.

U.S. officials have refused to negotiate with Russia over the proposed statement because they say it would entrench Assad without leading to a peace deal. Diplomats from several other countries also predicted that Moscow’s proposal would fail.

The Russian approach “is at significant variance with the ongoing efforts of a coalition of more than 60 countries,” Sheba Crocker, an assistant secretary of State, said Thursday, referring to the U.S.-led coalition arrayed against Islamic State.

The White House is prepared to cooperate with Russia against Islamic State. But U.S. officials said Putin’s military goals and other objectives remain unclear, and they worry that Russian attacks in Syria could worsen the war, not resolve it.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Ukraine, not Syria, would be the “top item” on Obama’s agenda when the two leaders meet. Western sanctions, he said, have “taken a significant toll” on Russia’s economy.

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Relations between the two leaders have been strained for years.

Obama canceled a meeting with Putin in 2013 after Moscow gave refuge to Edward Snowden, the rogue National Security Agency contractor. They talked briefly at a D-day anniversary in June 2014, and then spoke, again briefly, in China and Australia that November. They also talked by phone this summer after the U.S., Russia and four other nations completed a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear activities.

Although the White House has substantial support for its opposition to Russia’s military buildup in Syria, Obama will be under pressure at the U.N. to explain his strategy for resolving the civil war and rolling back Islamic State, diplomats say.

European leaders will face pressure to defend their treatment of the estimated 490,000 refugees and migrants who have streamed into Europe this year, often in rubber boats, straining some countries’ ability to provide services or ensure safety.

The refugee issue may be most prominent Wednesday, when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presides over a meeting aimed at persuading the 193 member countries to accept more refugees, and to pledge more money to restore the U.N.'s failing effort to feed refugees.

With the tab running into billions of dollars, U.N. aid workers have been forced to cut rations for Syrian refugees. Many European countries, struggling with the refugee crisis and weak economies, have felt unable to continue contributions.

With winter approaching, “the crisis is only going to get worse,” Mogens Lykketoft, the president of the General Assembly, said this week.

Ben Rhodes, a key Obama advisor, said the president had no plans to meet with another key player on Syria: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The two spoke by telephone after the U.N. meeting in 2013, and both were deeply involved in negotiations for the nuclear deal.

Rhodes said Obama “will have some opportunity” to meet with Cuban President Raul Castro. The two leaders spoke by phone last month but have not met since Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations this summer after more than half a century.

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