Russian President Vladimir Putin are all niceties — a pat on the
back here, a pleasantry there. But away from the cameras, the
two leaders are circling each other warily at a global summit in
China, coming face to face just as relations between their
countries continue to deteriorate.
Despite a handful of encounters so far, it was unclear whether
the leaders had broached any of the tough issues — such as
harsh U.S. sanctions that have damaged Russia's economy, or a
fragile ceasefire in Ukraine that appears at risk of collapse.
Officials said Obama and Putin didn't delve into substance
during a brief run-in Monday night, and in public appearances
Tuesday, the two kept their deep-seated disagreements out of
Just outside of Beijing, where leaders from 21 nations were
gathered for economic talks, picturesque Yanqi Lake became
the venue for an awkward pas de deux between two of the most
powerful leaders in the world.
Entering an ornate, wood-paneled room for the start of the
summit, Obama and Putin looked a bit like sidekicks to Chinese
President Xi Jinping. The summit's host led the way, with the
American on one side and the Russian on the other.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Putin said in Obama's direction. Yes, it
is, concurred a reticent Obama, avoiding eye contact with Putin
and addressing his response to no one in particular.
As the three presidents came to a stop at the head of the table,
Putin reached out to give Obama a slap on the back. But
Obama had turned in a different direction, and it didn't appear
that the Putin's hand landed on its intended target.
A few hours later, the two again found themselves in close
quarters under an overcast sky as leaders planted trees in honor
of their counties. Putin strode confidently up to his tree, ahead
of Obama, who clasped his hands behind his back before
picking up a shovel and greeting a Spanish TV crew with a
Away from the cameras, Obama and Putin did have a chance to
speak privately, said a senior Obama administration official who
wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded
anonymity. But it wasn't clear how thoroughly the leaders used
that opportunity to address the vexing issues that have raised
the specter of a return to a level of chilliness between the U.S.
and Russia unseen since the Cold War.
Putin's spokesman said only that the two had spoken a few
times during the summit, touching on "bilateral relations, the
situation around Ukraine, Syria and Iran."
The U.S. has been up in arms over Russia's presumed role in
fueling pro-Russian rebels in neighboring Ukraine. White House
officials have accused Russia of sending heavy weapons to the
separatists and shelling Ukrainian troops, and have denounced
Russia's buildup of forces along the border.
A truce reached in September between the rebels and Ukraine's
government is teetering, destabilized by what the White House
calls a "blatant escalation" by Russia and rebel-organized
elections in eastern Ukraine that the U.S. condemned as a
"sham." Vice President Joe Biden, in a phone call last week with
Ukraine's president, vowed further U.S. sanctions against
Moscow "if Russia continued to willfully violate the terms" of
Russia's economy has taken a major hit following U.S. and EU
sanctions — the ruble has plunged by a third this year and hit an
all-time low last week — but Putin has dismissed the notion that
he's hurting at the hands of the West. Addressing the Asia-
Pacific economic summit here Monday, Putin said his
government had the resources to stabilize its currency without
taking any emergency measures.
"We want Russia to play a different role," Ben Rhodes, Obama's
deputy national security adviser, said Tuesday. "We want Russia
to be a stabilizing force on issues that we care about. But
they're not going to be able to do that ... if they're violating the
sovereignty of a country next door."
Rhodes said Obama wouldn't not be seeking out a meeting with
Putin while in Beijing — nor in Brisbane, Australia, where the
leaders will once again run into each other during a Group of 20
economic summit this weekend. "Putin knows where we stand,"
Rhodes said, adding that Obama may discuss Russia's actions
with other G-20 leaders.
For Obama and Putin, awkward encounters at international
gatherings have become almost expected. But the optics have
gained even greater attention as the Ukraine crisis has taken
In June, on the sidelines of D-Day anniversary commemorations
in Normandy, France, Obama and Putin avoided each other
during a group photo, with Obama even using Britain's Queen
Elizabeth II as a buffer. The two later spoke briefly during a
private leaders' lunch.
And during a formal meeting last year during a summit in
Northern Ireland, Putin slumped in his chair and sat stone-faced
as Obama tried to joke about the Russian leader's athletic
ability. Obama later said Putin frequently looks like "the bored
kid in the back of the classroom."