With the United States and Russia stuck in a stalemate over the crisis in Ukraine, the relationship between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin is once again being tested.
Five years after the U.S. hit the “reset” button with Russia, relations between Moscow and Washington are arguably at a low not seen since the Cold War.
Obama had high hopes when he first met then-Prime Minister Putin in July 2009. “We think there’s an excellent opportunity to put U.S.-Russian relations on a much stronger footing. And we may not end up agreeing on everything, but I think that we can have a tone of mutual respect and consultation that will serve both the American people and the Russian people well,” he said at the time.
Three years later when Obama met face-to-face with Putin for the first time since he regained the Russian presidency, it was clear from their body language that their relationship faced a rocky road ahead.
Emerging from a two hour meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, where they mostly discussed the escalating crisis in Syria, the leaders held an incredibly awkward photo-op. They barely glanced at each other.
Obama tried to spin the meeting as a “candid…thorough conversation,” but the tension was palpable.
The White House has long urged the press not to read too much into the body language between the two leaders. “I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive,” Obama told reporters last year.
Just last month, Obama said it was part of Putin’s “shtick” to try to look like a “tough guy.”
It was another year before Obama and Putin met again in June 2013 at the G8 in Northern Ireland where they had a slightly less awkward photo-op. At the time, Obama described their “constructive, cooperative relationship” as one that “moves us out of a Cold War mindset into the realm where, by working together, we not only increase security and prosperity for the Russian and American people, but also help lead the world to a better place.”
But by the time they crossed paths again last September, the relationship was on edge. Obama cancelled a planned stop in Moscow ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg after Putin let NSA Leaker Edward Snowden seek refuge in Russia. Obama and Putin also continued to butt heads over what to do about the civil war in Syria.
This time, there was no formal sit-down at the summit, simply a handshake and a 20 minute discussion on the sidelines of a plenary session, interactions Obama described as “straightforward.”
This week, the two leaders have held two tense, lengthy phone calls as they seek to resolve the standoff over the situation in Ukraine.
During an hour-long discussion Thursday, Obama warned Putin that his country’s intervention in the Crimean Peninsula is in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The call came just hours after Obama slapped new visa restrictions on Russians opposing the new Ukrainian government and cleared the way for financial sanctions against those contributing to the crisis.
“These decisions continue our efforts to impose a cost on Russia and those responsible for the situation in Crimea. And they also give us the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia’s actions,” Obama explained Thursday.