Obama No ‘Washington Stiff,’ Putin No Horseback Hero: Re-set 3.0

That U.S.-Russian “re-set” is all but a fuzzy memory at this Crimean moment, with the leaders of both countries confronting criticism left and right.

Here’s more proof that you can’t tell the book by its cover:

In the international confrontation between Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has formalized the annexation of Crimea in rapid fashion, and U.S. and European leaders protesting with sanctions and threats of sanctions, The Economist pictures Putin shirtless astride a tank — Photo-shopped from his famous horseback portraits.

Yet inside, the Economist explains:

“The reality is that Mr Putin is a force for instability and strife. The founding act of his new order was to redraw a frontier using arguments that could be deployed to inflame territorial disputes in dozens of places around the world. Even if most Crimeans do want to join Russia, the referendum was a farce.”

“He dresses up his takeover of Crimea in the garb of international law, arguing for instance that the ousting of the government in Kiev means he is no longer bound by a treaty guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders that Russia signed in 1994, when Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons. But international law depends on governments inheriting the rights and duties of their predecessors. ”

If Putin is portrayed as the tough guy in this contest, President Barack Obama’s critics have attempted to portray his foreign policy as feckless and challenge him for creating a public appearance of distraction — ridiculing the president for taking part in daytime and late-night talk shows and sitting with comedian Zach Galifianakis for an online session of trash-talking humor as he promotes his health care program near the March 31 deadline for enrollment.

In the midst of all this, we’ve been reminded that the tweeting president of Russia — @PutinRF_Eng — had made his debut on Twitter with a note of congratulations for Obama’s reelection, part of that attempt at a re-set.

That re-set has been unsettling for some time now.

When Russia was offering asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole and released reams of data about U.S. surveillance programs, Obama described Putin as a “a bored kid in the back of the classroom.”

“I don’t have a bad personal relation with Putin,” Obama said at a news conference in August. “When we have conversations, they’re candid. They’re blunt. Oftentimes, they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”

For all the ribbing that Obama has taken for taking part in TV comedy during the Crimean crisis — with Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly suggesting that Abraham Lincoln never would have sat for “Funny or Die’s  Between Two Ferns” with Galifianakis, and Obama noting that even Lincoln liked a good “bawdy” joke now and then — the Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon was the one poking fun at that Obama-Putin relationship:

The other thing Obama had to say about O’Reilly’s criticism was this: “One of the hardest things about being president is being in this bubble that is artificial and unless you make a conscious effort, you start sounding like some Washington stiff.”

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