WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday denied he has poor relations with Vladimir Putin after canceling their Moscow talks, but said the Russian president can sometimes appear “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
U.S.-Russian relations plunged to one of their lowest points since the Cold War this week after Russia granted temporary asylum to fugitive former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden. Obama retaliated by abruptly canceling a Moscow summit with Putin planned for early next month.
At a White House news conference on Friday, Obama insisted that he does not have bad personal relations with Putin. The two men had a testy meeting in June in Northern Ireland and from the photos of them at the time, it looked as if they would both rather have been somewhere else.
“I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive,” Obama said.
Putin’s sending of a telegram wishing former President George W. Bush well after a heart procedure this week was viewed by some Kremlin watchers as a sign that Putin was sending an implicit message to Obama.
The White House says Obama pulled out of the Moscow summit not just because of the Russian decision to grant asylum to Snowden, who is wanted in the United States to face espionage charges.
U.S. differences with Russia have piled up recently over Moscow’s support for the Syrian government in that country’s civil war, as well as human rights concerns and other grievances.
There was no immediate response from Moscow to Obama’s description of the Russian president. But at a news conference in Washington after talks on Friday between the Russian and U.S. foreign policy and defense chiefs, the Russians emphasized how positive the meeting had been. They even invited the Americans to participate in a tank competition later this year.
“We don’t have any Cold War. Instead we have close relations,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. “Edward Snowden did not overshadow our discussions.”
Obama said the United States will “take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going” and calibrate the relationship to take into account the areas where they can agree and acknowledge that they have differences.
“Frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved,” Obama said.
“I think there’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he said.
Obama did resolve one issue that has been debated in the United States. He said American athletes will in fact compete in the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, in spite of Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law.
“I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics,” Obama said.
He said the best way to combat the law is for gay and lesbian athletes to do well in the Sochi Games.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which would, I think, go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there,” he said. “And if Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then, it’ll probably make their team weaker.”
U.S. and Russian senior officials sought to maintain a working relationship despite the tensions when they met in Washington on Friday.
The two countries agreed on the need to convene a Syrian peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible at the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Sandra Maler