WASHINGTON Russian President Vladimir Putin has pulled out of this month's Group of Eight summit in Maryland and will send Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place, the White House said on Wednesday.
Putin, who took the oath as Russia's president on Monday, informed President Barack Obama of his decision during a telephone call, citing the need to stay in Moscow to finalize appointments to his cabinet. Instead, the two leaders agreed to meet in Mexico in June.
The May 18-19 gathering of the G8 at Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in the Maryland countryside north of Washington, had been seen as an excellent chance for Obama and Putin to get to know each other.
A White House meeting between Putin and Obama right before Camp David had also been greatly anticipated, after the U.S. president was recently caught on camera confiding in Medvedev that he would have more "flexibility" to tackle issues like missile defenses after the U.S. election on November 6.
Medvedev was overheard on an open microphone telling Obama that he would "transmit this information to Vladimir."
Seizing the chance to cast the U.S. president as weak on foreign policy in an election year, Republicans said that Obama was more or less signaling that he would cave into the anti-missile-defense demands of Putin.
They view Putin as a hard-line rival of the United States and a tougher proposition for Washington than Medvedev, whom he replaced as president after previously holding the office from 2000 to 2008.
"The excuse could be legitimate," said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"But on the other hand, maybe neither Obama, nor Putin, wanted to have their first big meeting, with Putin back as the president, at the (White House)," she said.
A White House bilateral could have had repercussions on the U.S. election campaign trail, where Obama's likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, has already criticized the Democrat for not being tough enough in his dealings with Russia.
Putin, for his part, might prefer more neutral territory than the Oval Office for a meeting with the U.S. leader. The two will now meet on the sidelines of the June 18-19 G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
The White House, in its readout of their telephone call, said the two leaders "reiterated their interest in the sustained high-level dialogue that has characterized the re-set of relations," citing "substantial progress" on nuclear security, non-proliferation, Afghanistan, trade and other issues.
(Additional reporting By Jeff Mason; Editing by Sandra Maler and Philip Barbara)