Three photographs of President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, taken at this week’s G-20 summit in Mexico, were stacked one atop the other.
In the top photo, a disinterested Putin seems to be fiddling with his fingernails while Obama is talking. In the middle photo, the presidents are shaking hands — though neither is feigning a smile. In the bottom photo, each seems to be staring at a clock on the wall, as if they’d rather be anywhere than sitting side-by-side at a gathering of international leaders.
Call it a nightmare photo-op for those who wish to portray the United States and Russia as allies in today’s world affairs.
The Obama-Putin meeting in Mexico solidified what already was clear: the days of improved relationships with Russia ended with the election-day defeat of former President Dmitry Medvedev. Putin, a former KGB man, has returned to the presidency after a term as prime minister, where he not so quietly bided his time and affected Medvedev’s Russian policy.
This isn’t merely the case of two powerful nations that wield competing worldviews. These are nations that harbor serious disagreements over several issues, including how best to stem the bloodshed in Syria, where activists say more than 14,000 people have died since March 2011.
Before this week’s meetings, the White House had wisely called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashir Assad. Russia, a Syrian ally, has disagreed; publicly, Putin has said only Syrians have the right to decide Assad’s fate. Following the G-20 summit, Obama delivered an altered view by describing Assad’s situation as a “political process,” even though concerns remain about the possibility of Assad’s forces using Russian arms against Syrian civilians.
The U.S.-Russia relations also are strained over the deployment of the U.S. missile-defense system and recent State Department comments unkind to Putin’s presidential victory. That said, Putin’s hard-line approach and Soviet-style coolness to U.S. policies may make it impossible for relations to warm between our country and his while he’s president.
This week’s pictures show these aren’t two nations standing in unison. For now, they’re putting up with each other, and even that is a struggle.