US President Barack Obama appeared to pause a two-year effort to isolate Vladimir Putin Thursday, agreeing to what the White House said were “repeated requests” for a meeting.
The Kremlin and White House said the two leaders will have their first formal meeting in two years on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, although they gave differing views as to whether the talks will center around Syria or Ukraine.
And the announcement was accompanied by a series of disparaging remarks from the White House about image-conscious Putin and Russia, underlining the festering distrust between the old Cold War foes.
The decision to hold talks checks a US policy of punishing Putin for his invasion of Ukraine, a stance that also brought international sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy.
“The president did make a decision that it was worth it at this point to engage with President Putin in a face-to-face meeting to see if the interests of the United States could be advanced,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
A senior US official told AFP Obama decided it would be “irresponsible not to test” whether Russia is ready to play a more constructive role.
Russia is a protagonist in crises in Ukraine and Syria, where Moscow props up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
While saying Obama would not show “overt hostility,” Earnest went on to describe Russia as a regional power with an economy that was slightly smaller than Spain’s — in comments sure to rile Putin and the Kremlin.
Earnest also asked aloud whether Moscow’s quick announcement of the meeting showed they were “more desperate.”
“I think it is fair for you to say that based on the repeated requests we’ve seen from the Russians, that they are quite interested in having a conversation with President Obama,” he said.