WASHINGTON -- A photograph of President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin that emerged this week from the G-8 conference offers a glimpse of the prickly times for U.S.-Russian relations.
At a joint press conference Monday afternoon, the two leaders slumped down in their respective chairs on a small stage, each man staring down at his own feet as the other took questions from the press. Putin fidgeted, while Obama, typically a deft public speaker, gave answers that seemed unemotional and awkward. Neither appeared happy to be there.
That could be because, as one administration source tells The Huffington Post, Obama had just finished giving Putin some tough talk during a one-on-one meeting the pair held on the sidelines of the more formal G-8 summit. The two-day gathering of the leading industrial nations of the G-8 concluded Tuesday.
"Right now, [the Russians] are causing more headaches around the world than even [their] nukes entitle them to," said the official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a U.S. ally. "The president was just sick of it."
Another Obama administration adviser who was not authorized to speak publicly about negotiations noted that the president's staff is "very frustrated, and they're working their asses off on [U.S.-Russia issues]. Obama spent four years with a president he could really work with, and so of course it's frustrating that Putin's back," the adviser said.
But a third source familiar with the one-on-one meeting downplayed tensions between the two leaders, saying that this particular discussion was actually smoother than those in the past. The source, who would speak about the content of the discussion only on condition that he not be quoted, acknowledged that the president was direct about his administration's differences with Putin on Syria. But the talks around Iran and nuclear arms reductions were not tense, and it was the latter topic that consumed the most time. Being tough with Putin, the source added, was better than looking into his soul -- a reference to how former President George W. Bush famously said he approached the Russian leader.
Still, longtime foreign policy observers say that these are rough times for U.S-Russian affairs, with Putin's government complicating much of what the president is hoping to accomplish on the world stage.
"I'm sure they had a blunt conversation. There is a fundamental disagreement to disagree [on Syria]," said P.J. Crowley, a former top spokesman at the State Department and now a professor at George Washington University. "That said, they had some overlapping comments to make with regards to Iran. That is just what the nature of the relationship is.
"I wouldn't say that this is a return to the Cold War in that Russia and the U.S. have demonstrated that while their relationship has become testier over the last year or so, on an issue-by-issue basis they can cooperate where their interests intersect."
On the war in Syria, one of the biggest issues confronting the international community, Russia and U.S. interests have continued to diverge. Russia has been almost singularly responsible for propping up Syria's autocratic president, Bashar Assad, but just days before the meeting, the Obama administration announced that it would begin shipping arms to the Syrian rebels, a move that only served to further isolate Russia in its role as Assad's sole backer among major world powers.
With the prospect of a prolonged civil war inflamed by outside actors coming at the same time as the convening of the G-8 summit, eyes naturally shifted towards Obama and Putin's interactions. The brief comments and awkward photo op on Monday only fed suspicions of growing testiness between the two men. A New York Times report on Wednesday morning described the meeting that preceded the press conference as "chilly."
Others suspected that Obama had invested too heavily in the wrong Russian leader.
"Vladimir Putin is not Dmitry Medvedev," Crowley said, in reference to the former Russian president. "The president had established a good working relationship with Medvedev but he is no longer president and doesn't have the international portfolio he once did."
What kind of restraints Putin could place on Obama's foreign policy agenda is a tougher question to answer than whether or not their personal relationship is in a productive place. Even outside of the Syria question, the prospects for meaningful advancements seem small.
Just hours after a speech Wednesday in Berlin where Obama proposed a one-third reduction in U.S. strategic deployed nuclear weapons, a Russian official indicated that the proposal wasn't going to be taken seriously by the Russian government -- as long as the U.S. was still building up missile defense systems in Europe.
The Russian official's response was surprising, especially after the U.S. canceled the final phase of a missile defense buildup earlier this spring. Analysts predicted the move would please the Russians, who vehemently opposed the buildup, and would potentially help pave cooperation on other issues.
By all accounts, that hasn't happened. "There's probably a lot of frustration on missile defense," said Joe Cirincione, president of the non-proliferation advocacy group the Ploughshares Fund. "The administration was underwhelmed by the Russian response," he said, "and after that there was a sense of, 'what else do they want? What are they really after here?'"
Cirincione said Obama's nuclear reduction proposal "likely served as a challenge to Putin," and an indicator to the rest of the world that the U.S. will keep pressing its long-term objective of reducing the global stockpile of nuclear weapons.
"We're clearly in a phase of some competition [between the U.S. and Russia], and sometimes interests overlap and sometimes they don't," he said. "But [the Russians] have asks, and they have objectives and they have things they want. And they may be overstating or overreaching their leverage, but we still have to deal with them."
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