Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and US President Barack Obama are seen arriving at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 2014Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and US President Barack Obama are seen arriving at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in 2014 (AFP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Washington (AFP) - 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.
- 'Particular image' -
The White House spokesman went on to remark on Putin's seemingly disinterested public image and his posture after a recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Putin was striking a now-familiar pose of less-than-perfect posture and unbuttoned jacket and, you know, knees spread far apart to convey a particular image," Earnest said.
The announcement was also followed by conflicting messages from Moscow and Washington on what the meeting would focus on.
"Naturally the top-priority topic will be Syria," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed to Russian news wires, adding the meeting would last around an hour.
The two leaders could also touch on the conflict in Ukraine "if there is time left," he said.
The White House said the talks would be focused on Ukraine and Russia's commitment to withdraw troops from the eastern part of the country.
"The president has made clear that he's prepared to waive those sanctions as soon as Russia is prepared to demonstrate commitment to complying with the agreements that were reached in Minsk," said Earnest, referring to a peace deal that has failed to have the intended effect.
Washington and its EU allies have also urged Moscow to explain its military buildup in its longtime ally Syria, which has been reported to include airport facilities and bases, as well as planes and tank-landing ships.
Putin and Obama last held a fleeting meeting on the sidelines of an APEC Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing in November 2014.
Their last official bilateral meeting was in June 2013 at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Moscow on Thursday announced naval exercises in the east Mediterranean, which are set to run into next month.