BENOUVILLE, FRANCE – Add another awkward chapter to the long-running story of the tense relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This one came complete with a cameo from British Queen Elizabeth II, who became an unexpected buffer between the presidents.
The dignitaries were in France on Friday for ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy. The commemorations coincided with heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Moscow’s threatening moves in Ukraine.
Obama and Putin had a short conversation inside the French chateau where they attended a leaders’ lunch, marking the first time they have spoken face to face since the Ukraine crisis began. But a public encounter during a photo session before the lunch highlighted the strain in the relationship, with Obama appearing to go out of his way to avoid contact with Putin despite coming within an arm’s length of him.
Obama was all smiles as the leaders gathered on the steps of the grand Chateau de Benouville for the group photo. He took his place in the front row next to the queen and waved and shook hands with other leaders.
But he steadfastly avoided any contact with Putin when the Russian leader took his place nearby. French President Francois Hollande and Denmark’s Queen Margrethe II joined the British monarch in serving as a shield between Obama and Putin.
As the photo session ended, Obama lingered with the queen while Putin sidled up to Hollande for the short walk to lunch. But the two pairs were soon back to back, with Obama so close to Putin that he could have easily reached out and tapped him on the shoulder. Instead, Obama continued his conversation with the queen. More than once, he slowed his steps, putting distance between him and Putin.
No reporters were on hand for the Obama-Putin conversation inside the chateau, which aides described as informal.
But the leaders were quickly back on public display during the day’s main event, an elaborate ceremony on Sword Beach.
As Obama and Putin took their seats, the image on the large screens in the outdoor pavilion split into two, with Obama shown on the left and Putin on the right.
Putin appeared to catch sight of their pictures on the screen first and cracked a smile. Then Obama saw them and grinned, glancing sideways toward the Russian leader as the crowd packing the stands erupted in laughter.
For Obama and Putin, Friday’s intense attention was nothing new. The two have never displayed much chemistry, and their face-to-face encounters have come to symbolize the increasingly sour relations between the U.S. and Russia.
During a formal meeting last year on the sidelines of a summit in Northern Ireland, Putin slumped in his chair and sat stone-faced as Obama tried to make a joke about the Russian leader’s athletic skills. When asked later about Putin’s body language, Obama compared him to the “bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
With two and a half years left in Obama’s term, there probably will be more awkward encounters with Putin. But the Russian leader will still be in power when Obama leaves office.
Putin was asked by a French television station earlier in the week about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and possible future presidential candidate. He said Clinton was “never very subtle in her statements,” adding that “people overstep certain barriers of propriety; that doesn’t show their strength but their weakness.”