Obama, Putin discuss Syria, Iran and Ukraine

President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin took time on the sidelines of Tuesday’s economic summit in Beijing to discuss a trio of foreign policy challenges, according to a White House official.

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The pair spoke on three separate occasions for a total of between 15 or 20 minutes, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.

“President Obama had an opportunity to speak with President Putin. Their conversations covered Iran, Syria and Ukraine,” Meehan said.

The conversations could represent a slight dethawing of the frosty relationship between the two leaders, who spent the early hours of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit largely avoiding one another.

The two leaders were spotted walking with Chinese President Xi Jinping across the grounds of the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake, where the conference is being held. But aside from Putin offering a comment on the landscaping — and a quick pat on the shoulder — the two had little to say to one another.

That came a day after the two men exchanged pleasantries but otherwise avoided policy discussion during a welcoming ceremony for Pacific leaders. A White House spokesman insisted earlier in the day that Obama would not go out of his way to seek out a more in-depth conversation with Putin.

Still, the conference seemed an opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to discuss some shared interests in the Middle East.

Moscow is contemplating joining the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has recruited foreign fighters from Russia’s North Caucasus region. The group has also seized wide swaths of land from Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Putin.

And Russia and the U.S. are working together to try to broker a deal with Iran to end its nuclear weapons program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. The countries face a Nov. 24 deadline for those talks.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Iran had agreed to ship much of its uranium stockpile to Russia for conversion into specialized fuel rods, a process that would make them difficult to weaponize. The proposal could assure Western powers nervous about the sincerity of Tehran’s claims it wants only a nuclear energy program.

But the opportunities for collaboration were largely overshadowed by the looming crisis in Ukraine, where officials in Kiev have responded with alarm to reports Russia was sending large convoys of heavy weapons and tanks into Eastern Ukraine.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Beijing Tuesday the provision of arms was in “complete violation of the spirit” of a ceasefire agreement between Kiev and Moscow, and that continued provocations were a “recipe” for isolation from the international community.

He added that the situation would “certainly come up” at the G-20 meeting later this week in Australia, and that the U.S. and European leaders had established a “pattern of imposing consequences on Russia when we see escalation.”