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Parrying U.S. snub, Russia's Putin holds court with dignitaries

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By The Los Angeles Times
Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 10:34 p.m.

MOSCOW — Russian television viewers could be forgiven on Friday for failing to notice that the leaders of the United States and some of its political allies were absent from the hoopla in Sochi.

President Vladimir Putin used the hours before the lavish opening ceremony for the Olympic Winter Games to hold court with world leaders who did attend and project an image of the globally influential chief of a resurgent Russia.

On arrival in Sochi, where Western journalists have focused on fears of a terrorist attack and discomforts in the hastily constructed hotels and venues, Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Putin on his staging of the prestigious competition as evidence that “Russia is heading toward strength and prosperity.”

Xi also hailed Russian-Chinese cooperation on Syria and Iran — two foreign policy challenges that have pitted the once-rivalrous eastern giants against the three Western countries that are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, preventing the American, British and French faction from securing sanctions on Damascus or Tehran.

“China and Russia should from this day forward continue deepening our consultations and cooperation on major international issues and together maintain world and regional peace, security and stability,” Xi told his host in one of a half dozen mini-summits broadcast from Sochi.

Putin received Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose crackdown on political opponents and public protest over the last year have alienated Turkey from its traditional allies in Europe and Washington. Putin seemed eager to cast Russia as an alternative diplomatic partner more respectful of Ankara's right to decide its own domestic affairs.

Rossiya-24 television showed leader after leader arriving on the new airport tarmac in the subtropical resort, with Russian officials greeting the likes of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Also on hand for the U.S.-snubbed festivities was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was to meet with Putin on Saturday to discuss the nearly 7-decade-old dispute between their countries over four islands on the Pacific Coast.

Costas' Putin piece ridiculed

NBC television personality Bob Costas' raised eyebrows with a Thursday night profile piece on Putin that critics said portrayed the leader as a peacemaker.

Costas credited Putin with “a deal to allow Syria to avoid a U.S. military strike by giving up its chemical weapons.”

In September, Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., said Russia was simply replacing the chemical weapons with conventional ones. “At the same, time plane loads of arms are flying into Damascus that are used to kill Syrians,” he said on CNN.

Putin also “helped bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear intentions.” But Russia, long allies with China, have long blocked international action on Iran through the United Nations, and the mild rapprochement followed the August ascension of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani to Iran's presidency.

He “showcased his confidence to take on the West” with a move to undercut a deal in which the Ukraine would have joined the United Nations. The action has fomented political turmoil in the nation that was formerly part of the Soviet Bloc.

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