White House: Russians 'Desperate' to Meet With Obama

September 24, 2015

White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested during Thursday's briefing that the Russians were "desperate" for president Vladimir Putin to meet with President Obama next week.

Obama and Putin will have a face-to-face meeting in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, amid tensions over Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine. The announcement was made by Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said the meeting would focus on the Syrian crisis, and was confirmed later by the White House.

ABC reporter Jonathan Karl pressed Earnest on why the Russians broke the news of the meeting first.

"The Kremlin has been quite forthright in saying Putin wanted a meeting, being the first to be out there to say the meeting would happen and now the only one to tell us exactly when that meeting is supposedly taking place," Karl said. "Was the president kind of reluctant to take this meeting? Seems like the Kremlin's been certainly more forthcoming in terms of talking about it."

"I think some might conclude that means the Russians are--" Earnest said.

"More transparent?" Karl joked.

"Or more desperate," Earnest said. "I think it is fair for you to say that based on the repeated requests we've seen from the Russians, that they are quite interested in having a conversation with President Obama, and after, I think, would acknowledge is some careful consideration on our end, the president did make a decision that it was worth it at this point to engage with President Putin in a face-to-face meeting to see if the interests of the United States could be advanced in the context of those conversations."

The two leaders have been at odds for years, with relations bottoming out after the Russian invasion of Crimea, in addition to the handling of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people and Moscow granting asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Obama's passive foreign policy has contrasted sharply with the former Soviet KGB agent's expansionist vision for Russia.

Earnest said such willingness to speak with less-than-friendly faces was a hallmark of Obama's foreign policy. He also said Obama's top agenda item during the meeting with Putin would be Ukraine, the Associated Press reports:

Russia is ramping up its involvement in the Syria war, which has left 250,000 dead and forced millions to flee their homeland since it began in March 2011. Russia recently has ferried weapons, troops and supplies to an airport near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia in what the U.S. sees as preparations for setting up an air base there.

Moscow has denied that it's building up its presence there in order to protect its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, saying instead it wants to help him fight the Islamic State group.

U.S.-Russian relations deteriorated significantly after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014. The U.S., as well as other Western countries, imposed sanctions on Russia over the annexation and over claims that Moscow is supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine with troops and arms.