The one image which sums up relations right now between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama

How they got through a 90-minute meeting together is a mystery

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The Independent US

One smiled as the other remained stern, one reached out as the other kept his arm in close, one clutched his glass as the other maintained a delicate grip.

It’s the moment Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin exchanged what should have been a simple gesture of goodwill – and it speaks volumes for the gulf that has emerged between them.

Mr Putin met privately with President Obama after they both made speeches at the UN General Assembly in New York

Relations between Russia and the US, already fraught amid the crisis in Ukraine, have been brought to this impasse by the two effectively backing opposite sides in the Syrian civil war.

Meeting at the UN General Assembly for their first face-to-face encounter in nearly a year, the pair spoke privately for 90 minutes in a bid to find some common ground.

But if their two countries are hardly on a friendly footing, the relationship between the men themselves appears to have deteriorated by an even more alarming degree in the past 12 months.

In his speech as host of the New York summit, Mr Obama offered a jibe at Russia without even daring to speak its name, railing against “some major powers [who] assert themselves in ways that contravene international law”.

He also directly addressed the Ukraine crisis, saying: “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.

“If that happens without consequences in Ukraine, it could happen to any nation gathered here today.”

This was the context for the pair’s awkward clink of glasses at the leaders’ lunch which followed, and it made the prospect of the two men sitting together in private for a full 90 minutes seem almost unthinkable.

In the event, the American side said afterwards that the meeting was “focused”, a “business-like back and forth”.

US officials said the situation in Ukraine consumed about half of the meeting, Syria the other half. The White House is worried pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine could hold local elections next month that violate a fragile peace plan, and Mr Obama urged Mr Putin to help keep the accord on track, they said.

President Obama and President Putin met privately at the UN after clashing on Syria

Then, almost as if to highlight further the contrast between the two men, Mr Putin emerged to brief journalists on what happened himself.

He revealed Russia had not ruled out air strikes in support of the Syrian regime, signalling his preparedness to take unilateral action by stating: “We are thinking about it and don't exclude anything.”

And despite all that had gone before, he sought to play down any differences with the US over Ukraine following his meeting with Mr Obama. He extended if not an olive branch, then an offer to work together, saying the US had a role to play mediating between the Ukrainians, Europeans and Russia itself to help reach a peace settlement.