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Putin and Obama: A brief history of painfully awkward face-to-face meetings

September 26

After what has been described as “repeated requests” by the White House, President Obama has agreed to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

It will be a relatively rare face-to-face meeting for two of the most powerful political leaders in the world. While the pair talk on the phone with relatively frequency, they have not met in person recently. Many of their previous personal meetings have been remarkably brief – and sometimes quite awkward.

Here’s a rundown of Obama and Putin’s face-to-face chats over the years.

2009 – A two-hour meeting in Moscow

In 2009, a fresh-faced Obama had just become president of the United States, while Putin – having already had his constitutionally limited two consecutive terms as president – had settled into a new role as prime minister of Russia.

While officially Putin was no longer the most important politician in Russia, Obama seemed keen to meet him. He traveled to Putin’s residence outside Moscow to talk, with a planned discussions of an hour and and a half running over by another half hour. The pair were photographed enjoying tea and pastries in Putin’s garden.

“I found him to be tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic,” Obama said after the meeting. “And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon.”

2012 – Another two-hour meeting in Mexico

Obama seemed to have a relatively easy relationship with the Dimitri Medvedev, Putin’s successor as Russian president – the pair even went for burgers together in Arlington.

However, by 2012, Putin was president again.

The two met in person for the first time as presidents on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico. They talked for two hours, with almost a third of their discussion revolving around the conflict in Syria, which had begun the previous year. Administration officials described the conversation as fruitful, but things soon went downhill.

2013 –An awkward photo, a cancelled meeting and a 20-30 minute private talk

In 2013, Putin and Obama met on the fringes of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland – a subsequent photoshoot produced one of the most notorious images of the pair, with both men evidently unable able to hide their frustration at the other.

That frustration was real: Obama and other members of the G8 wanted to call on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to step down to end fighting in the country, but Putin’s support for Assad derailed this plan. As Reuters described it, the meeting between the two was “testy.”

Shortly after the meeting, Obama announced that an upcoming summit with Putin, due to be held in Moscow ahead of a G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, had been cancelled. Many linked the decision to cancel the meeting to Russia’s decision to allow former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to stay in the country.

In the end, the pair did meet in St. Petersberg. Reports said that the pair spoke privately for about 20 to 30 minutes in the corner of the room while the rest of the guests watched. Syria was against said to take up the majority of the conversation.

2014 – A 15-minute conversation during the D-Day commemoration in France

Following a comically awkward meeting on a big screen, Obama and Putin had a real face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of a D-Day lunch in Colleville-sur-mer, France. The pair broke away from the crowd and spent about 15 minutes talking about Ukraine.

“It’s a positive thing that they spoke, but more needs to be done,” an official told CNN after the talk.

2014 – A brief talk in Beijing

At APEC summit events in Beijing last year, the two men again broke away to talk privately a number of times. “On three occasions throughout the day, for a total of approximately 15-20 minutes, President Obama had an opportunity to speak with President Putin,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told reporters. “Their conversations covered Iran, Syria and Ukraine.”

According to Reuters’ Matt Spetalnick, reporters overheard a snippet of conversation between the two as the summit opened in a convention center outside Beijing. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Putin was heard to have said in English, referencing the grand room the two men were in.

“Yes,” Obama responded.


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