LOS CABOS, Mexico (AP) — It’s hard to tell if President Barack Obama got a sense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soul. In front of reporters, they hardly looked at each other.
In their first meeting since 2009, Obama and Putin shared little eye contact and did not appear to express much personal warmth following a two-hour meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Putin made brief remarks and then looked down at the table as Obama spoke to reporters, aided by a translator.
The gathering had a much different feel compared with President George W. Bush’s first meeting with Putin in Slovenia in June 2001. Bush said then that he was “able to get a sense of his soul.”
Yet aides said the media shouldn’t draw any conclusions from the chilly body language. They said the meeting wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did if the two leaders didn’t get along.
Mike McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the chemistry between Obama and Putin was “very businesslike” and “cordial.” McFaul added that there was nothing extraordinary about the exchange. “That’s just the way he looks, that’s just the way he acts,” McFaul said of Putin.
Said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser: “This isn’t the first body language-gate we’ve had with the Russians.” Rhodes noted that the White House had faced similar questions before but said these were “businesslike conversations” between the two leaders and cautioned against trying to decode body language.
Later, the two leaders were all smiles after Obama sat down for the start of the summit. With Putin seated to his right, Obama gave the Russian president a quick “thumbs up” and then slid his chair over to share a few words. Obama’s face lit up with a big smile and Putin grinned as they separated and the meeting began.
Obama and Putin both want to meet in each other’s country — whether they will is anyone’s guess.
Putin ended his brief remarks before reporters with an invitation for Obama to visit Moscow. Obama, who faces voters in five months, made a similar offer.
“I look forward to visiting Russia again, and I look forward to hosting you in the United States,” Obama said.
The U.S. president has already nixed plans to attend the APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, in September because of his re-election campaign.
During a March national security summit in Seoul, South Korea, Obama accepted an invitation from outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev to visit St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama said he planned to make the trip after the 2012 campaign. But if he loses re-election, it’s unclear if that meeting will take place.
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