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Obama arrives in Sweden 'in the shadow of war'

By Jim Acosta and Brianna Keilar, CNN
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 4, 2013.
U.S. President Barack Obama waves as he arrives at the Arlanda Airport in Stockholm, Sweden, on September 4, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama's three day overseas trip has him in Sweden and Russia
  • Russia appears to come on board for Syria strike if evidence is there
  • Snowden affair, Obama comments recently marred US-Russian relations

Stockholm, Sweden (CNN) -- The headline from one Swedish newspaper summed up the days to come for President Barack Obama: "Obama in the Shadow of War."

During a fast-paced three-day overseas trip that includes visits to Stockholm, Sweden and a G-20 summit in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the president will face allied, yet skeptical leaders who remain unconvinced that military action is necessary to punish Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

Even as Obama administration officials acknowledge that Syria will be an ongoing subject of discussion, they dismiss the notion the president is fighting a losing diplomatic battle, noting support from both France and Turkey.

Obama's visit to Sweden marks the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the nation's archipelago capital city of Stockholm.

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However, the president is only visiting the Scandinavian nation as a result of his administration's decision to cancel a bilateral summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the latest example of worsening U.S.-Russian relations.

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White House officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have complained of Russian obstruction to any United Nations intervention in Syria's bloody civil war.

Still, even on Obama's first stop, there is opposition to any unilateral U.S. action against Syria.

"Sweden doesn't want a military attack... I don't believe that is the solution to the conflict," Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told Swedish public broadcaster SVT in an interview over the weekend.

But Obama's principal adversary on Syria, Putin, appeared to open the door to U.N.-sanctioned military action in an interview with the Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1.

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"If there are data that the chemical weapons have been used, and used specifically by the regular army, this evidence should be submitted to the U.N. Security Council," Putin said.

In response to Putin's remarks, a senior administration official said the White House continues to be deeply skeptical about any support from Russia, which holds a key seat on the Security Council.

But as the president arrived in Europe, there were signs of a potential thaw in the chill between Washington and Moscow.

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Administration officials said Tuesday Obama is expected to meet briefly with Putin at this week's G-20 summit -- "on the margins," one White House official said.

That is a small but measurable improvement over what the White House said late last month, when it indicated the two leaders would not spend any time together in St. Petersburg.

The relationship between Obama and Putin has suffered from one damaging episode after another in recent months.

Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to national security contractor turned leaker Edward Snowden was greeted with frustration by Obama administration officials.

And then Obama's comparison of the Russian president's body language to the "bored kid in the back of the classroom" did not go over well in Moscow.

In his interview with the AP and Channel 1, Putin urged observers not to read too much into the body language coming from other leaders.

"We work, we argue about some issues. We are human," Putin said.

Before the president's trip to Russia, he will spend 24 hours in Sweden, a nation administration officials describe as a key ally on issues ranging from national security to climate change.

While in Stockholm, Obama is also scheduled to meet with Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and pay tribute to the late Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

The big debate: Should U.S. strike Syria?

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