September 4th, 2013
08:05 PM ET

Breaking up is hard to do: the Obama-Putin relationship

By Jill Dougherty

Relationships can be tough, especially long-distance ones. And talking to that special someone all night on the "red phone" isn't easy when you're pulling all-nighters dealing with world crises.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed one public display of affection on Thursday, shaking hands and exchanging a few words. Officials say the world leaders could have a longer meeting on the margins of the G-20. The issue of what to do in Syria is adding a lot of stress to an already strained relationship.

Back in January 2009 when Obama was sworn into office for the first time, he had high hopes for U.S.-Russian relations after things went south between George W. Bush and Putin.

There was a new young president – Dmitry Medvedev – in the Kremlin and Obama thought maybe Washington and Moscow could start over.

That March, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, a big red "reset button." Almost like red roses. It was mislabeled with the wrong Russian word but in matters of the heart it's the thought that counts. Things were looking up.

Medvedev and Obama had chemistry: By the end of the year, they reached agreement on a transit treaty allowing the United States and NATO to use a route through Russia into Afghanistan.

Then in April 2010, they signed the new arms control agreement.

Sure, there was that Russian spy ring the FBI broke up in June 2010 but it blew over fast and it featured a sexy Russian red head, so no harm done.

But there were some warning signs.

When protesters took to the streets of Moscow in December, Vladimir Putin, waiting in the wings as prime minister, accused Clinton of stirring things up.

By May 2012, Putin was back in the Kremlin and then the chill set in.

He made a date with Obama for the G-8 meeting at Camp David but canceled and sent Medvedev, who was now prime minister.

It's been one quarrel after the other since. Syria, human rights, missile defense, a Russian law that bans American from adopting Russian children.

Putin even uncovered his own spy scandal: a U.S. diplomat wearing a blonde wig.

Then in June of this year, news broke that the Russian president had kept the diamond-studded Super Bowl ring that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft showed to him during a 2005 trip to St. Petersburg.

Things got worse in August when admitted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden showed up in Moscow and was eventually granted temporary asylum.

Obama was stung by the move and canceled a summit meeting with Putin scheduled around this week's G-20 meetings in Russia.

"I don't have a bad personal relationship with Putin," Obama insisted in August. "When we have conversations, they're candid, they're blunt; oftentimes, they're constructive."

Obama continued, "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."

Since Putin came back to power, Obama said, "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. And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues. With mixed success."

Putin also sees no reason to cover up his disagreements with Obama.

"President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people in order to be pleasant to Russia," he said this week. "And your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to someone either. We work. We argue about issues. We are human."

The two are far from finished, however, despite recent history.

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