President Barack Obama had his first face-to-face chat Friday with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, since their relations broke down over the Ukraine crisis early this spring. Their brief conversation about stopping the ongoing bloodshed in eastern Ukraine was the clearest sign yet that ties are on the mend, and that Putin's decision in March to annex a chunk of Ukrainian territory will not lead to his isolation from the club of Western leaders.
As the Russians like to say, Putin is once again rukopozhatny, or worthy of a handshake.
It's a remarkable turnaround for a leader whose close friends and associates have been the targets of Western sanctions over the past three months. During preparations for Obama's trip to Europe this week, the White House avoided questions over whether the U.S. President would speak with Putin or even shake his hand in France, where the two gathered on Friday along with a dozen European leaders to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasions.
But the host of the occasion, French President Francois Hollande, has gone out of his way to use the ceremony at the Chateau de Benouville in Normandy as a venue for peace talks. He first facilitated a conversation between Putin and the newly elected President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, whose victory in last month's presidential race Putin has yet to recognize as valid. The pair met, along with Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, over lunch. Hollande told French television the interview was substantive and they "passed on the message" that Russia should recognize Poroshenko's presidency.
And once Poroshenko had accepted the chance to speak with Putin, albeit with a sour look on his face, Obama went along with the trend. "Putin and Obama expressed the urgent need to stop the violence and military actions" in eastern Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov told reporters after their chat.
Obama and Putin spoke for about fifteen minutes after a luncheon, according to a White House readout of the conversation. Obama told Putin that the recent election of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko marks a potential turning point in American-Russian relations, provided Putin recognizes Poroshenko as Ukraine's legitimate leader. Obama also urged Putin to stop supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Most of Russia's state media led with the news of the conversation, signaling how eager the Kremlin's image-makers have grown to cast Putin as a welcome guest among his Western counterparts.
"Lots of subtle messages being plied for the audience at home," noted Timothy Ash, an analyst at London's Standard Bank. "Over Crimea, Putin the warrior, now on the Normandy stage, Putin the Peacemaker," Ash said in a note to investors, who have been pumping money back into the Russian stock market as the risk of further Western sanctions has diminished. "Market certainly loving this," Ash wrote.
But it's not clear how much Obama's home audience will love his rapprochement with Putin. In a commencement speech to the West Point military academy last week, the U.S. President held up Russia's isolation as a sign of American influence in the world. "Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away," Obama said. "Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions."
That condemnation has now eased off of demands for Russia to return the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine, calling instead for Putin to "de-escalate" the ongoing conflict by reining in pro-Russian militants fighting to break away more of Ukraine. The West is now watching for Putin to recognize the legitimacy of his Ukrainian counterpart, and Moscow has signaled its willingness to do that after Poroshenko's inauguration on Saturday. It would then be a matter of time before Kiev and Moscow come to the negotiating table to resolve their differences, giving Putin a chance to make amends with the West just a few months after invading his neighbor. Considering the price he would have paid in diplomatic isolation, the conquest of a peninsula with two million inhabitants would then start to look like a very good gamble indeed.