President Barack Obama said Russian President Vladimir Putin has the slouch of “the bored kid in the back of the classroom” even as he said the two leaders “don’t have a bad personal” relationship.
Obama’s commented yesterday at a White House news conference shortly after “two plus two” talks in Washington between U.S. and Russian foreign and defense ministers intended to bridge differences on issues including missile defense, the Syria conflict and human rights.
After Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the fugitive former U.S. security contractor, Obama canceled a planned stop in Moscow for a one-on-one meeting with Putin tied to next month’s Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg. Obama said yesterday that, given “a number of emerging differences” it is “probably appropriate for us to take a pause” and to reassess the relationship.
Even so, U.S. and Russian officials said the verbal sparring didn’t prevent efforts to make progress, though the two sides have yet to resolve their differences. They said they’re seeking to build on cooperation in areas of shared interests, such as curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities and expanding military-to-military contacts.
“There’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship,” Obama said. “There’s been a lot of good work that has been done” between the U.S. and Russia and “a lot more will be done.”
Obama said when the two leaders meet “the press likes to focus on body language,” and Putin has “that kind of slouch.”
“When we have conversations, they’re candid,” Obama said. “They’re blunt. Oftentimes, they’re constructive.”
Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took his own dig at Obama’s decision to call off the Moscow meeting with Putin in part because of the spat over Snowden. The 30-year-old American is wanted on espionage charges by the U.S. after disclosing secret government surveillance programs.
Lavrov cited progress that could have been made at at a Moscow meeting, saying the U.S. and Russia “need to work as grown-ups, and this is what we’ll do and this needs to be reciprocal.”
At his news conference, Obama also said he opposes a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics over recent differences between the two nations or over the anti-gay sentiment that has been growing in Russia, which is hosting the games.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which would, I think, go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there,” Obama said.
Cancellation of the Moscow meeting denies Putin a high-profile event tied to the G-20 gathering, the first hosted by the Russian leader. It’s also the latest blow to Obama’s efforts to “reset” U.S. relations with Russia.
Even before Russia granted temporary asylum to Snowden, Obama’s advisers were questioning the value of a summit with Putin because of a lack of progress on issues such as arms control, trade, human rights and ways to deal with Syria and Iran.
Noting differences with Russia, Obama said a pause will allow the U.S. to “calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States and, hopefully, good for Russia as well but recognizing that there are just going to be some differences, and we’re not going to be able to completely disguise them.”
Relations have chilled since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 and canceled plans to attend the Group of Eight meeting that Obama was hosting at Camp David, Maryland. Putin sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place.
“I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backward,” Obama said yesterday, making a reference to the Cold War. That effort has met “with mixed success.”
The two-plus-two meeting yielded an agreement between U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to establish a regular video link between them and to hold more military-to-military exercises, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified to discuss the closed-door talks.
During an hour of constructive conversation before the main talks, Shoigu, who hadn’t met Hagel before, also invited the U.S. to send observers to a annual theater-level exercise this year that will involve about 13,000 soldiers at nine training ranges, the official said.
The four ministers agreed to continue to discuss missile defense issues and to work on bilateral and multilateral cooperation on outer space, a second administration official said. Russia’s objections to the U.S. missile defense program are an obstacle to Obama’s goal of reaching an agreement for further reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both nations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Lavrov affirmed the need to hold what’s known as the Geneva 2 meeting between the Syrian regime and the opposition as soon as possible. U.S. and Russian officials will meet at the end of the month to work on that, the second administration official said.
The U.S. expressed appreciation for Russian support on supplying NATO and U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and the four officials agreed they can cooperate further on fighting the drug trade there.
The U.S. and Russian representatives also agreed on the need to get Iran back to negotiations on its nuclear program quickly, especially in light of the election of President Hassan Rohani, who has called for better relations.
The most recent two-plus-two meeting took place in Moscow in 2008 and both of the U.S. officials said there was a commitment to hold meetings more often. The idea to revive the format came up when Obama and Putin met at a G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland.
“We see a great demand for cooperation” in the two-plus-two format, Lavrov told reporters at a press conference yesterday at the Russian embassy. Referring to a five-year lull in the meetings between foreign and defense ministers, he said the mood was “positive, which inspires confidence.”