international relations

Just How Awkward Was the Obama-Putin G20 Handshake?

Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

As the United States lays the political groundwork for possible military action in Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin warned against unilateral military action, calling the notion that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on the rebels there “absurd.” What with President Barack Obama canceling a one-on-one meeting with Putin last month as Russia refused to hand over NSA leaker Edward Snowden, there was every reason for tension when the pair finally met face-to-face Thursday, as Obama arrived at the Group of 20 summit at St. Petersburg’s Constantine Palace.

It was not the most comfortable exchange ever witnessed, to be sure. Though if relations between the two men were not so strained, it’s hard to imagine that the same footage of Obama exiting his limousine and shaking hands with Putin would be labeled a “death stare.” Here’s what made the greeting seem weird:

While the rest of the visiting leaders arrived at the summit in standard-issue Mercedes or BMWs, Obama arrived in his armored Cadillac limousine with D.C. plates, nicknamed the Beast:

The two men shook hands for a long time — seven or eight seconds, by our count. And they exchanged some words while shaking. Think anybody was trying to crack the other’s knuckles?

Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Obama is taller than Putin, and a shot of his face from Putin’s back as the two met has him looming over the Russian president. The face he’s making in the “death stare” photograph only lasts a split second in the footage, but that shot from CNBC’s Eamon Javers, on Twitter, does look quite intimidating.

During their long handshake, the pair exchanged pleasantries that, according to the pool report, appeared as though they were remarking on the weather. Obama reportedly “thanked his host and nodded toward the palace pronouncing it, quote, ‘beautiful,’” per CNBC. That’s a pretty inconsequential conversation for two guys with this kind of baggage. But what else were they supposed to say? “Oh, by the way, stay the hell out of Syria”?

Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

And then it was over, and Obama walked inside, and Putin got ready to meet the next leader.

Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

So, how awkward was it? Well, it was certainly laden with much unsaid. But it’s hard to imagine we’d be labeling it so heavily if their relationship were different. The simple fact that they were forced to shake hands and exchange pleasantries was awkward — and some of the imagery sure was — but the actual handshake and pleasantries were pretty workmanlike.

How Awkward Was the Obama-Putin G20 Handshake?