UNITED NATIONS (CNN) — Calculated detachment and wildly differing motives marked President Barack Obama’s meeting Monday with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. And that was before the two men even shook hands.
The presidents of the United States and Russia were huddling in a second floor conference room at the United Nations, squarely opposed on issues such as Ukraine and Syria. During a photo-op at the beginning of the session, the two men gripped each others’ hands, smiling tightly as cameras clicked away, before quickly disappearing behind closed doors.
Days ahead of their arrival in New York for the annual United Nations meeting, Obama and Putin’s respective capitals were already exchanging barbs over the nature of the talks, their agenda and who had initially requested they happen.
That left little optimism the meeting between the men — the first in two years — would yield any tangible progress toward ending the crisis in Ukraine or resolving Syria’s civil war.
The White House suggested last week that Putin was “desperate” for the ear of the American president and had been nudging the White House for a slot in Obama’s schedule for weeks.
“I think it is fair for you to say that based on the repeated requests we’ve seen from the Russians, that they are quite interested in having a conversation with President Obama,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.
Moscow, meanwhile, insisted the meeting came at the request of the Americans — who they claimed provided a list of possible dates.
So, too, was the meeting’s agenda under dispute. Obama’s aides asserted the focal point was Ukraine, and the entrenched Russian fighters on the country’s eastern border. A secondary topic, they said, was the recent buildup of Russian troops and equipment in Syria.
The Kremlin argued the opposite: Syria would lead the meeting, claimed a spokesman for Putin. A discussion on Ukraine — where the U.S. claims Russia violated international law — would come only “if there is enough time.”
“There will be time,” asserted Earnest last week.
The face-to-face meeting is the first time the two leaders have met since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine aside from brief encounters on the sidelines of global summits in France and Australia. Obama, responding to the Ukraine crisis, has sought to isolate Putin, ousting him from the Group of Eight leading industrial nations and enlisting European countries to join in economic sanctions.
But even the White House admits the sanctions — while exacting a significant toll on the Russian economy — have done little to stop or reverse Putin’s actions in Crimea, which he still controls.
The intractable situation left the Obama administration divided on whether engaging Putin after two years was a wise move. Secretary of State John Kerry was said to have pushed Obama to accept the meeting, arguing that skipping the talks could result in a missed opportunity.
“It would be irresponsible to not have a face-to-face encounter and to not directly address with President Putin our positions and concerns on these two issues,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said last week.
While U.S. officials say they entered the meeting with Putin open-minded, there was little optimism the session would produce anything remotely close to a breakthrough.
More likely, said Earnest, will be another view of Putin’s practiced disinterest when meeting with foreign leaders, citing his “now familiar pose of less-than-perfect posture and unbuttoned jacket, and knees spread far apart, to convey a particular image.”
That image was avoided Monday: with cameras present, there were no chairs for slouching down in sight.