President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke briefly on Friday morning, marking the first time the two world leaders have come face-to-face since Russia annexed Ukraine’s peninsular region, Crimea, and began amassing troops at the eastern border.
Before the trip to Normandy, France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the White House said Obama – who has had an icy relationship with Putin in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis – would not meet one-on-one with the Russian president. But the president’s tune changed.
Details on the conversation have not been made public. But Obama told reporters on Thursday that he “will be repeating the same message to him that I have throughout this crisis” – that while Russia has a legitimate interest in what happens in Ukraine, “ultimately it’s up to the people of Ukraine to make their own decisions.”
Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said Obama and Putin spoke to each other – out of the view of cameras – during a lunch for world leaders for approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
The White House pool reports earlier in the day described Obama and Putin deliberately going out of their way to avoid each other. At one point, according to the report, the two leaders were “at times close enough to touch but did not speak with or acknowledge each other.” At the lunch, Putin and Obama were seated four seats away from each other.
French officials apparently also took action to ensure Obama didn’t have an awkward, unplanned encounter with Putin on their watch. French President Francois Hollande planned two separate dinners on Thursday evening – one with Obama at a restaurant and another one at his residence with Putin.
Putin and Obama have spoken occasionally on the phone since the crisis in the Ukraine erupted, but their communication has been sporadic.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the G7 group of major economies, meeting in Brussels for an annual summit, was threatening further sanctions against Moscow if Putin does not take specific steps to ameliorate the separatist rebellion in Ukraine.
Those steps include recognizing Petro Poroshenko as the legitimate new leader of Ukraine, stopping the flow of arms and militants across the border and ending support for pro-Russian separatist groups in the country.
Back in March, the group of leading world economies – the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan – booted Russia out after Moscow annexed the Crimean region in Ukraine. The summit was originally scheduled to take place in Sochi, Russia, but was canceled following the Kremlin’s military incursion.