Russia's President Vladimir Putin will skip a planned visit to the United States this month for a key global summit and a much-anticipated meeting with President Barack Obama, the Kremlin confirmed Thursday, as he faced pressure from protests and opposition criticism at home.
The White House announced Wednesday that Putin is unable to join the other leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations meeting outside Washington on May 18-19. The Kremlin said Putin needs to finish work setting up his new government.
Instead, Russia will send Dmitry Medvedev, the former president and new prime minister, to the G8 summit.
The Kremlin said that Obama expressed "understanding" for Putin's cancellation, and the two are now due to meet at another global summit in Mexico in mid-June.
Putin took power this week, returning after four years to a post he had previously held for two terms. He made sharp criticism of the United States a central theme in his election, but it is not clear whether he will pull back from Medvedev's efforts at cooperation with the U.S. in several areas.
Interviewed on Thursday by the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Putin's aide Arkady Dvorkovich rejected suggestions that Putin is avoiding the U.S. visit because of potential questions about human rights violations in Russia.
"I don't think that Putin is scared of anything linked to politics," Dvorkovich said. "This is laughable. These are just idle thoughts that have nothing to do with reality."
Putin's inauguration on Monday was marred by violence at an opposition rally the day before when protesters tried to move to another, unsanctioned, location. Police dispersed the rally and detained hundreds.
Since Sunday, hundreds of protesters have been staging flash mobs across the city with police breaking up and regularly detaining many of them. Two key leaders of this "people's stroll", Alexei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were sentenced to 15 days in jail on Wednesday for disobeying police orders.
Separately, many opposition groups have decried Putin's decision to provide a logistics facility in central Russia to NATO as a betrayal of national interests. The facility in Ulyanovsk is to support the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan
Russia does not border on Afghanistan. But the two countries are separated only by former Soviet Central Asian republics that have porous borders with Russia and Afghanistan.
Putin is also facing criticism for Russia's impending membership in the World Trade Organization. Hailed by some as a long-awaited achievement, the WTO membership have caused concerns in Russia that the country's new trade status will hurt heavily subsidized industries, including agriculture.