President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met on Monday for the first time since the violent uprising in Syria began to discuss possible actions to limit further bloodshed in the meeting.
Putin, who reassumed the presidency of Russia earlier this year, met with Obama in bilateral talks that stretched for some time; both leaders were in Mexico for this week's G-20 summit.
Both leaders said they found common ground on the conflict, but shed little light on the steps upon which they agreed were needed to mount the violence between the Syrian people and the country's rulers. Putin is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has generally resisted imposing more sanctions on that regime.
Putin shared just two sentences on the issue of Syria, speaking through a translator: “We also discussed international affairs, including the Syrian affair. From my perspective, we've been able to find many commonalities pertaining to all of those issues.”
Obama said the leaders “agreed that we need to see a cessation of the violence, that a political process has to be created to prevent civil war, and the kind of horrific events that we've seen over the last several weeks, and we pledged to work with other international actors including the United Nations, [UN Special Envoy] Kofi Annan, and all the interested parties in trying to find a resolution to this problem.”
At a press briefing after the two leaders met, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, stressed that Putin supports a political transition in which Assad loses power, even if the Russian president is not as vocal about such views as other leaders.
“It's true the Russians have not publicly issued the same type of call for Assad to step down,” Rhodes acknowledged.
During the meeting, President Obama also said the two leaders discussed negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, stressing the “shared approach” among members of the P5+1, a group that includes the U.S., Britain, Russia, France and China plus Germany, in their dealings toward the Iranian regime.
That emphasis on a shared approach highlights Russia's opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran, such as the ones installed by the United States against countries that do business with Iranian oil companies. Just last week, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference in Iran that “unilateral sanctions by others will never have a positive and constructive outcome.”
Obama also made a passing reference to an issue that has been a key factor in US-Russia relations, but over which the president recently got into domestic political hot water: missile defense.
During a meeting in March with then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, Obama was caught on a hot microphone saying he would have “more flexibility” on the missile shield issue after the November elections, to which Medvedev uttered the now-infamous response, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.” Republicans pounced on the exchange, saying it represented American weakness on the international stage.
But today, Putin gave little indication of just what was transmitted, as the only thing either leader said on the topic was that it was discussed among a “range of strategic issues,” according to Obama, and that they “resolved to continue to work through some of the difficult problems involved there.”
The interaction between the two leaders, meeting for just the second time, was perceived by the press in the room as somewhat chilly. As the group of journalists was ushered out of the room, “Messrs. Obama and Putin remained seated, their interpreters had stepped away, sitting side-by-side on the other side of the room -- and they just stared straight ahead. No interacting or chit chatting,” one pool reporter wrote.
But administration officials later urged observers not to read in to the encounter.
“This isn’t the first Body Language-Gate that we've had with the Russians,” Rhode said, noting that relations between Obama and Medvedev, who are considered to have a more friendly relationship than that between Obama and Putin, have also been perceived as frosty.
“That's just his style. I would encourage you not to read too much into that as part of relationship,” said U.S. ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, also at the briefing today.