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Obama says relationship with Putin not icy despite 'tough guy' stance

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses during his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarqu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin may seek to look like the tough guy in joint appearances with President Barack Obama, but Obama said in an interview that he and Putin have a pragmatic and respectful relationship.

"I wouldn't call it icy," Obama said in an interview with NBC host Bob Costas taped on Thursday as part of coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"He does have a public style where he likes to sit back and look a little bored during the course of joint interviews. My sense is that's part of his shtick back home politically as wanting to look like the tough guy," Obama said in the interview, set to air on Friday evening.

"U.S. politicians have a different style. We tend to smile once in a while," Obama said in excerpts of the interview released by NBC.

Obama canceled a visit to Moscow to visit Putin last year after Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the former spy contractor whose leaks about U.S. surveillance operations rocked U.S. relations with allies and hurt Obama's popularity at home.

The leaders have also disagreed over how to respond to Syria's civil war. In a joint appearance after discussing Syria at a meeting in June, Obama and Putin both looked like they would rather have been somewhere else.

On Thursday, a recording of a private conversation between U.S. diplomats discussing protests in Ukraine was posted on YouTube, embarrassing the United States.

"I would say that since the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia's role," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

But Obama said the two leaders focus on issues of "mutual concern" where they can work together.

"The truth of the matter is that when we are in meetings there are a lot of exchanges, there's a surprising amount of humor, and a lot of give and take. He's always treated me with the utmost respect," Obama said.

Obama said U.S. and Russian law enforcement, military and intelligence officials have been in "constant communications" to ensure safety at the Sochi Olympics.

"I think the Russians have an enormous stake, obviously, in preventing any kind of terrorist act or violence at these venues. They have put a lot of resources into it," he said.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Bernard Orr)

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