Francois Hollande Hosts Two Dinners, Keeps President Obama & Vladimir Putin Far, Far Apart
As you might expect, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin haven't been seeing eye-to-eye lately — so much so that their mutual friends (OK, other world leaders) have to schedule around the feud. One of those friends/world leaders is French President Francois Hollande, who will attend two separate dinners with Putin and Obama Thursday, so to keep the at-odds heads of state from running into each other, or worse yet, having to break bread.
Thanks to a myriad of issues — Russia's annexation of Crimea and subsequent militarism in the Ukraine, the resulting U.S. sanctions against several Russian officials, the asylum of NSA-leaker Edward Snowden, as well as the anti-gay aggressions of Putin's government — the official relationships between the two countries have hit a veritable low point for the 21st century.
And their leaders have never exactly had a warm or natural relationship. This could probably be forgiven of Obama — whatever your opinion of U.S. foreign policy, he seems like the considerably more personable guy. At the very least, like a much more pleasant dining companion than the machismo-fixated Putin. Still, Hollande will take the plunge, becoming the first Western leader to meet one-on-one with Putin since the tumult and military action in the Ukraine.
The occasion for the meetings is the 70-year anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy under heavy attack, starting the grinding ground offensive which ultimately toppled the Nazis. Hollande is hosting 18 different leaders for the anniversary, which sounds like a jam-packed schedule. Not as jam-packed as his gut might end up, though — he's supposed to dine with Obama just two hours before doing so with Putin.
Even before this recent inflaming of tensions, we've seen some subtle glimpses of the discordant relationship between the two leaders. A memorable example came at the 2013 G-8 summit, when Russia and the U.S. were at odds over the blood-soaked civil war in Syria, and the suspected use of chemical weapons. Sitting rigidly across from one another during a joint news conference, President Obama tried to lighten the mood with a simple, light-hearted gibe at their respective ages:
We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball, and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.
Putin's reply, however, was disarmingly deadpan and uncomfortable.
The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.
It was a chilly exchange, and indicative of something quite significant: Obama's attempts at relatable charm don't much appeal to Putin, Putin's calculating demeanor doesn't much appeal to Obama, and they're both blindingly aware of the divide. And with their nations now severely at loggerheads, this was probably a pretty easy call for Hollande's schedulers.