By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — After snubbing the Russian leader earlier in the week, President Barack Obama met briefly with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday for the first face-to-face encounter between the two leaders since the crisis in Ukraine sent their already rocky relationship into a spiral.
The roughly 15-minute chat between the two leaders came at the Chateau de Benouville, the countryside estate where a coterie of foreign leaders, kings and Queen Elizabeth II broke from a day of D-day ceremonies for a midday meal.
On June, 6, 1944, Allied forces landed on a swath of beaches in Nazi-occupied France in World War II’s most ambitious operation. The invasion and ensuing battle for Normandy helped change the course of the war.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes confirmed the “informal” conversation, but did not offer details immediately.
Obama had signaled the encounter with his sometime rival was likely. Even as the U.S. and Europeans shut Putin out of meetings on Thursday, Obama watched his three closest allies book their own private session with the Russian leader. Earlier this week, Putin told reporters he was open to talking to the American president, but Obama said he preferred to keep it loose. He said he would see Putin at the lunch, but declined the formality of a so-called “bilateral” meeting.
The men showed no signs of warmth while under the watchful eyes of reporters on Friday, as they were corralled with the rest of leaders for a photo to mark the high-powered lunch on the historic day. They either kept at a distance — busy talking to others — or ignored each other when in close range. Obama spent time seeing to the 88-year-old queen. Putin and Obama were not seated next each other at the lunch in the grand neoclassical chateau.
The diplomatic choreography reflects a sort of pivot point in the crisis. White House officials acknowledge they’re not trying to ramp up pressure on Putin at the moment. They instead see his decision to move troops back from the border as a positive sign, and are hopeful Ukraine’s election of a new president last week may act as an impetus for defusing tensions. They want to engage with Putin, but they don’t want to signal that the relationship is back to pre-crisis normal.
On Thursday, Obama called on Putin to engage in talks with President-elect Petro Poroshenko to hash out economic and political reform that could aid the Russian-speaking population in the eastern part of the country.
In one positive sign, Putin also talked with Poroshenko at the lunch. The two leaders spoke briefly, standing on each side of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama’s meeting came at the end of a four-day European trip that was dominated by the political upheaval in Ukraine.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb