President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly ignored each other today as they stood just feet apart during a for state leaders’ commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
World figures met in France in the midst of a current geopolitical crisis, with Putin standing alongside leaders, including Obama, who are against his aggressive moves into Ukraine.
All eyes were on Putin and Obama as they refused to acknowledge each other at the group photograph before keeping their distance as they headed to lunch at the Chateau de Benouville.
But as speculation mounted over whether or not they would talk, the White House confirmed that the pair did indeed speak ‘for 10 to 15 minutes’ once they went inside for the luncheon.
‘President Obama and President Putin did speak with each other on the margins of the leaders lunch,’ his assistant Ben Rhodes said. ‘It was an informal conversation – not a formal bilateral meeting.’
On Friday afternoon, a White House official released a readout of the 15-minute conversation, saying Obama warned Putin that ‘de-escalation’ of sanctions against Russia ‘depends upon Russia recognizing President-elect Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and materiel across the border’.
Obama, the readout continued, ‘noted President-elect Poroshenko’s commitment to pursue reforms to ensure that the rights and interests of all Ukrainians are respected, and urged Russia to work immediately with the government in Kiev to reduce tensions.’
‘President Obama made clear that a failure to take these steps would only deepen Russia’s isolation.’
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the leaders had exchanged views about the situation in Ukraine and the crisis in the east, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting with pro-Russian insurgents.
‘Putin and Obama spoke for the need to end violence and fighting as quickly as possible,’ he said.
The leaders had been placed just seats from each other – with only Queen Elizabeth II, French President Francois Hollande and Queen Margrethe of Denmark separating them.
The pair had not previously met about the crisis, although they have spoken multiple times by phone.
During the photo, Obama and Putin went to great pains not to speak to each other.
‘Obama and Putin were at times close enough to touch but did not speak with or acknowledge each other in the pool’s presence,’ the White House pool reporter noted.
As Putin hovered nearby, the president ‘made a point of jovially greeting other leaders, kissing Merkel on both cheeks, but he and Putin seemed to go out of their way not to encounter each other’.
The men were also pictured walking within feet of each other as they headed to the chateau – with Obama accompanying the Queen just a few steps behind.
Obama ‘could have tapped him on the shoulder if he wanted to but instead focused his attention elsewhere as if not noticing who was there’, the pool reporter noted.
Obama told reporters on Thursday that if he and Putin did speak, he would tell him that he has a new path to engage with Ukraine through President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who takes office Saturday.
‘If he does not, if he continues a strategy of undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine, then we have no choice but to respond’ with more sanctions, Obama said.
Putin and Poroshenko were pictured meeting at the event in France on Friday – their first meeting since Poroshenko was elected last month.
They were pictured speaking briefly with Germany’s Angela Merkel following the leaders’ photograph.
Reporters couldn’t hear any of the animated minute-long conversation. No plans have been announced for a formal meeting between the men.
Obama said on Thursday that he hoped the Russian leader would be ‘moving in a new direction’ on Ukraine since he didn’t immediately denounce Poroshenko’s election – ‘but I think we have to see what he does and not what he says’.
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