WASHINGTON — The first meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as the leaders of their respective countries was supposed to be an ice-breaker, a moment for two outsize figures to put behind them some of the friction that surrounded the Russian elections two months ago.
But the announcement Wednesday that Putin would skip the Group of Eight summit meeting of world leaders next week at Camp David — a gathering that Obama had promoted as an opportunity to “spend time” with Putin — bewildered foreign policy experts in both countries who have been waiting to see how the two leaders would get on.
During a phone call Thursday, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, assured Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the cancellation was “not political,” a State Department official said. Other administration officials said they accepted Putin’s stated reason for canceling his trip — he told Obama that he had to finish setting up his new cabinet.
In fact, during a meeting last week in Moscow with Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, which was supposed to set up the Camp David meeting, Putin had warned that he might have to send his prime minister (and the former president), Dmitry A. Medvedev, in his place, according to a senior administration official with knowledge of the meeting.
But wasn’t Medvedev supposed to be the one in charge of setting up the cabinet, Donilon asked. Putin, the official said, replied that while the prime minister would make the initial appointments, it was he, as president, who had to approve them. Putin promised to call Obama on Tuesday or Wednesday with his decision. And Wednesday, he did.
“Not that there aren’t big fights going on in Moscow, but that he can’t come to the G-8 because of that, I completely do not buy,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s really bizarre. Oh, so the prime minister, who actually runs the cabinet, he can go to the G-8, but Putin can’t?”
U.S. and Russian officials said the two men would meet in Mexico next month at the Group of 20 meeting.
Irritants remain in relations between the countries, including the deployment of a missile defense system that Russia considers a threat, and Russia’s defense of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The abrupt change of plans, however, comes as U.S. and Russian officials appeared to be signaling that they were prepared for relations to get back to normal, after the anti-American rhetoric that characterized Putin’s campaign.