President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked briefly at a summit in China as their two countries continue to clash over Russian’s incursions into Ukraine.
The two spoke three times for a total of between 15 and 20 minutes on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.
The discussion included Ukraine, efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program and the ongoing conflict in Syria, said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
The two have talked on the phone several times since the spring, when Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine and the United States and Europe responded by imposing economic sanctions on Russia’s economy – and some in Putin’s inner circle.
They last spoke in person in June at the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion in France.
Their talks on Tuesday came after they exchanged pleasantries twice, once upon arrival for summit meetings at a cavernous teak-paneled convention center at Yanqi Lake.
As they walked in, flanking Chinese President Xi Jinping, Putin remarked on the surroundings, saying “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Obama agreed, reporters said, and when they stopped at Xi’s place at the head of the table, Putin reached out to clap Obama on the shoulder, and then took his seat to Xi's left. Obama sat to Xi’s right.
That encounter followed a brief chat a day earlier upon arrival.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said ahead of the Obama-Putin talk that the U.S. continues to be “deeply troubled” by Russia's activities in Ukraine and that he expected Obama would express that view “publicly and privately.”
Rhodes said the sanctions are “clearly succeeding” and effecting Russia’s economy, but have yet to affect Putin’s decision-making, including preventing the Russian government from continuing to provide support to Russian separatists, including heavy weapons.
“What our message is to Russia is ‘There's an agreement that you reached with the government in Kyiv, and you just abide by that agreement,” Rhodes said. “ And what Russia will find is, if they continue to do that, it's a recipe for isolation from a broad swath of the international community. It's a recipe for the type of economic disruption they've seen from the sanctions going forward.”
Putin’s interaction with Xi’s wife drew far more interest: As he wrapped a shawl around Xi’s wife while the Chinese president chatted with Barack Obama, the Associated Press noted “Putin came off looking gallant, the Chinese summit host gauche and inattentive.”
“Worse still were off-color jokes that began to circulate about the real intentions of the divorced Russian president — a heartthrob among many Chinese women for his macho, man-of-action image,” the AP said.
It was apparently too much for Chinese authorities who scrubbed video of the exchange from the Chinese Internet, reflecting what AP notes is “intense control authorities exert over any material about top leaders while also pointing to cultural differences over what's considered acceptable behavior in public.”