, WASHINGTON, Aug 10 – President Barack Obama denied having a bad relationship with Vladimir Putin, even though he said the Russian leader can appear to have a “slouch” and sometimes looks “like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
The comments came at a White House press conference on Friday, two days after Obama canceled a summit in Moscow with Putin due to what the United States called a lack of progress on key issues and Russia’s granting asylum to US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden.
“I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin,” Obama insisted. “When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive.
“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, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive,” the president said.
Aside from Snowden, Washington and Moscow disagree on issues that include the war in Syria, missile defense, nuclear disarmament and human rights.
As Russia’s defense and foreign ministers met in Washington with their US counterparts, Obama said relations have chilled since Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in May 2012.
“I think there’s always been some tension in the US-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union,” Obama said.
“There’s been cooperation in some areas. There’s been competition in others. It is true that in my first four years in working with President Medvedev, we made a lot of progress.”
Medvedev was Russia’s leader between 2008 and 2012 while then former president Putin took a turn as prime minister — having first boosted the powers of the office — before returning to the top job.
This period saw a brief flowering of joint US-Russian projects, including a new strategic arms reduction treaty and a deal that saw Russia help supply US forces in Afghanistan.
“What’s also true is, is that when President Putin… came back into power, I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War,” Obama said.
“And I’ve encouraged Mr Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues. With mixed success.”
Obama however said he was against a boycott of Russia’s Winter Olympics next year over a controversial new Russian law banning “homosexual propaganda.”
Some gay rights activists around the world have called for a boycott, and US Senator Lindsey Graham said he thought Washington should consider boycotting the Games if Russia were to grant asylum to Snowden.
There is a precedent: the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
“I want to just make very clear right now, I do not think it’s appropriate to boycott the Olympics,” Obama said.
“Nobody’s more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” Obama said.
The president said he’d like to see some gay and lesbian athletes bring home some Olympic medals, “which would I think go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there.”
As Obama spoke Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was sparring with his US counterpart John Kerry at the State Department.
Lavrov acknowledged that ties were strained, but played down talk of a return to the era when the West faced off against the Soviet bloc.
“It’s clear there is no Cold War that we should expect,” said Lavrov after talks with Kerry, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
He described the overall mood of the meeting as “very positive, which inspires optimism.”
The most immediate barrier to warmer relations is Snowden, a former US intelligence contractor who fled to Moscow after revealing details of the US National Security Agency’s vast electronic spy networks targeting telephone calls and email.
Washington wants him extradited to face espionage charges, and was outraged when Moscow granted him political asylum.
Lavrov said, however, that the row had not “overshadowed” talks on other issues.
Kerry said he nevertheless hoped to work with Russia on Syria, especially to organize a long-delayed peace conference in Geneva.
Russia provides key support to Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, while Washington supports “non-lethal” aid to the rebels, who are backed by US-allied Sunni Arab monarchies Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Washington and Moscow “agree that to avoid institutional collapse and descent into chaos, the ultimate answer is a negotiated political solution,” Kerry said.
Lavrov also said that both sides agreed that there should be a fresh round of Syria peace talks “as soon as possible.”
Lavrov added that US and Russian officials would meet again on the issue at the end of the month.
Another sore point between the two countries are US missile defense plans in Europe. Russia charges that the missile shield is designed to reduce the deterrent effect of Moscow’s arsenal and thus alter the balance of power on the continent.