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Obama Bungles Putin’s Title (Again) at Breakfast

ReutersPutin showing Obama where they would eat breakfast on Tuesday morning.
U.S. President Barack Obama inadvertently misspoke Vladimir Putin’s title during his first meeting with the prime minister Tuesday, a second slip of the tongue in as many days that indicates he remains uncomfortable with who is who in the ruling tandem of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

The two leaders, however, appeared to hit it off over a breakfast of eggs, smoked beluga, black caviar, olady with cranberry jam, quail-stuffed pelmeni, tea brewed in a samovar, cherry kisel and homemade ice cream for dessert. The meal, which was scheduled to last 90 minutes, stretched on for more than two hours.

The leaders spoke broadly about how they can “avoid the mistakes made in the past eight years,” with Putin characteristically peppering the conversation with a few of his earthy jokes, his aide Yury Ushakov said.

Photos of the meeting showed Putin, Obama and their aides laughing over the breakfast on a terrace outside Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence near Moscow.

Before they retreated for closed-door talks over the meal, Putin greeted Obama by saying relations between the countries have been bumpy.

“There were quite gray, mundane days and even confrontations,” Putin said. “It is with your name that we link our hopes for the development of Russian-U.S. relations.”

When Obama replied, he misspoke Putin’s title.

“I am aware of not only extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minister … er … as president, but in you present role as prime minister,” he said.

“We think there’s an excellent opportunity to put U.S.-Russian relations on much stronger footing,” he added. “We may not end up agreeing on everything, but we can have a tone of mutual respect and consultation that will serve the American people and the Russian people.”

At a news conference with Medvedev on Monday evening, Obama described Putin as president before correcting himself. “I suspect when I speak to President … er … Prime Minister Putin tomorrow, he will say the same thing,” Obama said when talking about Russia’s objections to a planned U.S. missile shield in Europe.

Later Tuesday, Obama bungled Putin’s title again, referring to him as “President Putin” in an interview with NBC television.

He sought to downplay the mistakes. “I don’t think it’s Freudian,” Obama said. “He used to be president.”

He told Fox News Channel that he had found Putin to be “tough, smart, shrewd, very unsentimental, very pragmatic.”

“And on areas where we disagree, like Georgia, I don’t anticipate a meeting of the minds anytime soon,” he said.

Putin later told reporters: “The conversation was very good natured and substantial. We had many common points in many areas.”

Putin, however, won no promises from Obama on the missile shield, a major irritant in ties, but was told about the potential to work together more to prevent Iran from making a nuclear bomb, said Ushakov, a Cabinet deputy chief of staff and former ambassador to the United States. Obama said he was happy about the joint efforts to restrain North Korea’s nuclear program.

Ushakov said Obama offered assurances that the United States would take into account Russia’s interests in former Soviet republics, including concerns about Georgia and Ukraine, which are aspiring to join NATO. Russia fought a brief war with Georgia in August over its separatist region South Ossetia, whose residents hold Russian passports. Russia and Ukraine have uneasy ties over gas trade and transit.

Putin said Ukraine was an important partner for Russia, stressing that it was home to 17 million Russians, which is more than a third of Ukraine’s population, Ushakov said.

“Putin offered some arguments that, I think, allowed Obama to have a better grasp of the situation,” said Ushakov, who took part in the talks.

On Georgia, Putin laid out Moscow’s view that strong U.S. support for the country played a role in Tbilisi’s decision to try to retake South Ossetia, Ushakov said. The leaders did not discuss Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia’s other separatist region, as independent states following the war, he said.

Putin and Obama agreed to meet again at a later time, Ushakov said.

In a light moment before breakfast, Obama thanked Putin for providing good weather for their meeting. Dark clouds and rain greeted Obama when he arrived in Moscow on Monday.

“I also want to thank the prime minister for arranging very nice weather in Moscow,” Obama said, looking outside the window as Putin showed him where they would have breakfast.

Their first meeting took place days after Obama accused Putin of having one foot in Cold War ways of doing business and the other foot in the present. Putin responded by saying Russians couldn’t stand that awkwardly.

The subject surfaced over breakfast, with the Russian side now accusing the United States of using Cold War thinking. Ushakov said the American side now realized that it was wrong for the U.S. administration to keep “one foot … in the swamp of stereotypes and dogmas” of the past.

Obama remarked at a meeting with Medvedev later Tuesday that the two Russian leaders shared very similar views. In an interview Saturday, Obama had called Medvedev “progressive.”

Alexandra Odynova contributed to this report.

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