Vladimir Putin’s spokesman was forced to deny on Thursday that he had dismissed the UK as “a small island no one pays any attention to” as the G20 summit in St Petersburg opened in acrimony.
David Cameron responded to the alleged snub, which was reported to have been made by Dmitry Peskov in a briefing to Russian journalists, by saying that he did not accept Mr Peskov had used the words “for a moment”. But a No 10 source urged Mr Putin’s office to clarify his position, saying: “As host of guests from the world’s leading countries, I’m sure the Russians will want to clarify these reported remarks, particularly at a G20 where it’s a very British agenda on trade and tax.”
And today the Prime Minister told reporters: "Britain may be a small island, but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience.
“We are very proud of everything we do as a small island - a small island that has the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation.”
The incident was particularly troublesome for Mr Cameron who has been fighting accusations that he has been sidelined by the world’s most powerful nations following Parliament’s rejection of British military involvement in Syria and the revelation that he will not be holding one-to-one talks with Barack Obama during the two-day event in Russia.
The controversy erupted as an emboldened Mr Putin changed the G20 agenda – which was originally focused on trade and tax matters – to include a dinner discussion about Syria. His move brought the conflict to the heart of the summit, possibly in the hope that Mr Obama would be seen to have no majority support for military strikes on the Assad regime, which he favours in retaliation for the chemical attack on the Ghouta suburb of Damascus on 21 August.
Mr Putin – who has supported President Assad throughout the two-year civil war – was judged to have won the first round of his showdown with Mr Obama. A number of leaders sounded cool, and in some cases hostile, to the US President’s call for action. China’s Deputy Finance Minister, Zhu Guangyao, told a briefing: “Military action would have a negative impact on the global economy, especially on oil prices.”
The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is at the G20, added: “A political solution is the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria.” Even the Pope appealed for G20 leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution”, writing in a letter to Mr Putin that there should be a renewed commitment to seek … a peaceful solution … unanimously supported by the international community”.
The emerging positions left the Russian President looking pleased as he waited outside the ornate Constantine Palace to greet guests who together represent two-thirds of the world’s population. None of the guests was more eagerly anticipated than Mr Obama, who emerged from of his armour-plated limousine and extended a stiff handshake. Looking stern at first, Mr Obama praised the beauty of the palace and then grinned for the cameras as he and Mr Putin shook hands vigorously. The Russian President smiled, but the 20-second exchange was anything but warm. The White House went out of its way to say that Mr Obama would not be holding any one-on-one sessions with the Russian leader at the summit.
Mr Cameron urged Mr Obama to go ahead with strikes even though Britain will play no part in them. “Having set a red line on the further big use of chemical weapons it would be wrong if America were to step back, to do nothing. That would send a signal to Assad and also to dictators everywhere,” he told the BBC.
Meanwhile, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not a G20 member, issued strong support for President Assad. He called accusations of chemical weapons use a “pretext” to launch strikes.
Earlier Mr Peskov, in the same contentious briefing said the US should wait for a report by UN inspectors before intervening militarily, adding that American evidence “was quite far from being convincing”.
Third World pays price of tax avoidance
Third World countries are in danger of being left behind by new moves to crack down on tax-dodging multinationals, sources at the G20 have conceded. Under plans put to the St Petersburg summit, developed countries will forge ahead with automatic data-sharing systems designed to expose cheating corporations.
But there is concern that developing countries will miss out on the benefits if the systems rely on complex and expensive infrastructure.
Around 2 per cent of the national incomes of developing countries is being lost as companies spirit profits away to tax havens – equivalent to almost three times as much money as the Third World gets in aid.
Oxfam spokesperson Emma Seery said more was needed to protect poorer countries. She said: “The G20 have dealt a decisive blow to tax dodging … but we need the G20 to finish the job so that rich and poor countries alike can’t be cheated out of money that is rightfully theirs.
“The G20 statement is clear that developing countries must benefit from any new tax arrangements, but doesn't yet give the dates and details that Oxfam hoped to see, or include the poorest countries in the negotiating process.
“The poorest countries who are being hit hardest by tax dodging cannot be locked out of the negotiations on new global tax rules.”
St Petersburg Diary: Driving issues
Presidential one-upmanship was supposed to be confined to Syria, and not how each of the world leaders arrived. Each dignitary was allocated a perfectly adequate Mercedes. It wasn’t, it seems, quite adequate enough for Mr Obama who instead insisted on arriving in the Beast – his armour-plated limo – after a grand show from Air Force One. At least this time the Beast behaved itself. During his most recent trip to Ireland it got stuck on a sleeping policeman.
A game of diplomatic musical chairs seemed to have spared red faces at last night’s formal dinner, where guests were seated in alphabetical order. Using the Cyrillic alphabet – as might have been expected for a meeting in Russia – Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin would have faced the uncomfortable prospect of being forced to sit next to each other. Thankfully, one bright official thought up the idea that the Roman equivalent might be used instead.
A soft Assad
While the tough talking got under way in St Petersburg, the Syrian presidency thought it would be a good opportunity to show its softer side. Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s British-born, Louboutin-loving wife, launched an Instagram account showing her cuddling children and dishing out meals. A pity about her husband’s habits.