G20: Russia reworks seating chart to keep Obama, Putin apart.

G20 Seating Chart Reworked to Keep Obama, Putin Apart

G20 Seating Chart Reworked to Keep Obama, Putin Apart

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Sept. 5 2013 9:24 AM

The New G20 Seating Chart Tells Us Everything We Need to Know About U.S.-Russian Relations

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron stands flanked by Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama on the podium on the second day of the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland on June 18, 2013

Photo by Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama landed in St. Petersburg early Thursday for the start of what everyone's expecting to be a rather tense G20 summit. While the two-day meeting is ostensibly about economic issues, it will in all likelihood be overshadowed by all things Syria (with a dash of Edward Snowden). That, of course, will make Obama and Vladimir Putin's already awkward relationship that much more so. The Guardian's Ian Traynor has a nice rundown this morning of the frosty relations between the two world leaders, but it's this anecdote that perhaps sums up their current working relationship the best:

When world leaders file into St Petersburg's imperial Constantine Palace on Thursday ... presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama will be distant from one another literally, as well as politically.
The seating order, which would have had the Russian and US leaders separated only by the Saudi king, has been reshuffled to put five leaders, including David Cameron, between the two key adversaries over Syria and much else.
"The seating will be arranged according to the English alphabet," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the Moscow newspaper, Izvestiya. Had the Russian alphabet been used, Putin and Obama would have been almost cheek-by-jowl.

Earlier this summer, Obama canceled a formal sit-down with Putin that was set to take place ahead of the G20 meeting, thanks largely to Moscow's willingness to harbor Edward Snowden. The new seating arrangement doesn't remove the chance the two men will talk, of course, but it does provide a nice snapshot of where things currently stand in terms of Washington-Moscow relations. Obama arrives at the summit only hours after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel linked Russia to the Assad regime's chemical weapons, and Putin accused Secretary of State John Kerry of "lying" to Congress about al-Qaida's role in Syria.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.