Beijing: On the surface, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are all niceties a pat on the back here, a pleasantry there. But away from the cameras, the two leaders are circling each other warily at a global summit in China, coming face to face just as relations between their countries continue to deteriorate.
Despite a handful of encounters so far, it was unclear whether the leaders had broached any of the tough issues such as harsh US sanctions that have damaged Russia's economy, or a fragile ceasefire in Ukraine that appears at risk of collapse.
Officials said Obama and Putin didn't delve into substance during a brief run-in last night, and in public appearances today, the two kept their deep-seated disagreements out of sight.
Just outside of Beijing, where leaders from 21 nations were gathered for economic talks, picturesque Yanqi Lake became the venue for an awkward pas de deux between two of the most powerful leaders in the world.
Entering an ornate, wood-paneled room for the start of the summit, Obama and Putin looked a bit like sidekicks to Chinese President Xi Jinping. The summit's host led the way, with the American on one side and the Russian on the other.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Putin said in Obama's direction. Yes, it is, concurred a reticent Obama, avoiding eye contact with Putin and addressing his response to no one in particular.
As the three presidents came to a stop at the head of the table, Putin reached out to give Obama a slap on the back. But Obama had turned in a different direction, and it didn't appear that the Putin's hand landed on its intended target.
A few hours later, the two again found themselves in close quarters under an overcast sky as leaders planted trees in honor of their counties. Putin strode confidently up to his tree, ahead of Obama, who clasped his hands behind his back before picking up a shovel and greeting a Spanish TV crew with a wave.
Away from the cameras, Obama and Putin did have a chance to speak privately, said a senior Obama administration official who wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity
But it wasn't clear how thoroughly the leaders used that opportunity to address the vexing issues that have raised the specter of a return to a level of chilliness between the US and Russia unseen since the Cold War.