G20 summit: Isolated David Cameron is forced to shrug off Vladimir Putin ‘small island snub’ over Syria

Few signs of unity of purpose between leaders at first day of summit, but hostility remains veiled – more or less

St Petersburg

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.”

Joe Murphy

St Petersburg Diary: Driving issues

Boy racers

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.

Alphabet soup

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat