Trump meets Putin: Here's how U.S. and Russian summits have varied since 1943

Since the Second World War, meetings between U.S and Russian leaders have varied from civil to hostile to downright bizarre. Here’s a look at some of the most notable summits between presidents and Russian heads of state over the years.

From flies at half-mast to downed spy planes, top-level meetings have a colourful history

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin talk during the family photo session at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam November 11, 2017. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday at the presidential palace in Helsinki comes after a tumultuous meeting of NATO countries in Brussels last week.

At the top of the agenda are issues such as western sanctions against Russia since the annexation of Crimea, denuclearization and Russia's involvement in Syria.

And on Friday, in a development that could easily darken skies over the summit, a dozen Russian military intelligence officers were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for alleged election-related hacking.

Since the Second World War, meetings between U.S and Russian leaders have varied from civil to hostile to downright bizarre.

Here's a look at some of the most notable summits between presidents and Russian heads of state over the years:

Roosevelt and Stalin, 1943

British prime minister Winston Churchill, U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet premier Josef Stalin gather at Yalta, Crimea, in 1945. Their first meeting was two years earlier in Tehran. (AP photo)

The first official meeting ever held between United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin in 1943 was initially hailed as a success by both sides. It was held at the Soviet embassy in Tehran against the backdrop of the Second World War.

The meeting, as the Telegraph reported in 2017,was most notable for an assassination attempt. Gevork Vartanyan, a Soviet agent, played a key role in stopping German spy Otto Skorzeny from blowing up the summit.

But there were larger tensions emerging. Soviet suspicions of the relationship between Britain and the U.S. were so high that during the summit, Stalin, who noticed Roosevelt passing a handwritten note to British prime minister Winston Churchill, went so far as to instruct his head of intelligence in Persia, Ivan Ivanovich Agayants, to get hold of a copy of the note. He succeeded. The note read, "Sir, your fly is open."

The Russian leader and Roosevelt convinced Churchill to plan an invasion of occupied France, and the Russians agreed to join the war against Japan. Roosevelt and Churchill allowed for Soviet influence over lands in Eastern Europe as they talked post-war settlement.

This was originally viewed as a diplomatic victory for the U.S., while critics would later note it as the moment that the U.S. ceded too much influence to the Soviets.

Eisenhower and Khrushchev, 1959-1960

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, left, meets U.S. president Dwight D Eisenhower, right, at a distance. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The first and second meetings between U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev took a decidedly negative turn. Held in Los Angeles in 1959, the meeting was the first visit by a Soviet leader to the U.S.

Although Khrushchev was angered at being barred from Disneyland over concerns about his safety, both Eisenhower and Khrushchev came to various agreements that led to a joint communique.

In their statement, they said they hoped this would lead to a "just and lasting peace." They planned another meeting in Paris — but those hopes would be dashed.

In May 1960, two weeks before they were supposed to gather in Paris, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane over Russia and captured the pilot. The U.S. tried to claim it was a weather-monitoring plane, but the lie was exposed by the Soviets, and the Eisenhower-Khrushchev relationship crumbled.

At the next meeting between the two in Paris in 1960, Khrushchev tore into Eisenhower, infuriating the U.S. president. The incident was later dramatized in the Hollywood film Bridge of Spies. Eisenhower ended up canceling a trip to Moscow planned for the following month.

Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1961

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev meets president John Kennedy in 1961. 'It will be a cold winter.' (Evelyn Lincoln/Reuters)

The meeting between U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev is frequently referred to as "the most ill-judged summit of the Cold War." The two-day conference in Vienna in June 1961 was called after Kennedy sent Khrushchev a letter during his transition to the White House, in an attempt to make progress on a nuclear test ban treaty.

Clashing over Berlin, with Kennedy refusing to acknowledge East German sovereignty over the city, Kennedy later described the meeting to reporters as the "worst thing in my life."

When the formal meetings were over, Kennedy insisted on a short private meeting with Khrushchev to try to smooth things over.

During their final meeting, Khrushchev said: "It is up to the U.S. to decide whether there will be war or peace." Kennedy responded: "Then, Mr. Chairman, there will be war. It will be a cold winter."

Nixon and Brezhnev, 1972

President Richard Nixon, right, meets Russian president Leonid Brezhnev: a key step in ending the Cold War. (Keystone/Getty Images)

In the first visit to Moscow by a sitting U.S. president, Richard Nixon flew to the Soviet capital to meet with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. A number of historic agreements were made, two of which included restricting the nuclear arsenals of both superpowers, limiting ballistic missiles and setting up a hotline to prevent nuclear war breaking out by accident.

Nixon called the meeting "an enormously important agreement," at the time, and it would be later perceived as a key step in ending the Cold War.

Reagan and Gorbachev, 1987

U.S. president Ronald Reagan, left, and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986: 'Ron' and 'Mikhail.' (Denis Paquin/Reuters)

In 1987, a deeply suspicious Ronald Reagan and Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev met out of a shared desire to reduce each other's nuclear arsenals. Regarded as the reset point in relations, it is still viewed as one of the most famous encounters ever between a Russian and U.S. leader.

During the 1987 meeting, the New York Times reported the pair developed a strong working relationship, partly thanks to the seal of approval from Margaret Thatcher, who, after meeting Mikhail Gorbachev three years earlier had declared, "I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together."

Reagan described it at the time as the realization of "an impossible vision." In a meeting with reporters shortly after the summit, Gorbachev quoted the president as telling him: ''My first name is Ron.'' Gorbachev answered: ''Mine is Mikhail.''

''When we're working in private session,'' Reagan reportedly said, ''we can call each other that.''

In December 1987, the leaders signed an intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty in a first attempt to reverse the nuclear arms race.

Clinton and Yeltsin, 1993

Russian president Boris Yeltsin, right, and U.S. president Bill Clinton. Yeltsin was reported to have been seen drunk, outside the White House in his underpants, trying to hail a taxi. (Reuters)

Perhaps the strangest (and arguably the most entertaining) meeting between a U.S. president and Russian president involved Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin.

The summit in Vancouver took place in April 1993, with just a few aides and interpreters present. The purpose was simple: break the ice, begin to establish a personal bond and give the two leaders a chance to go over the agenda before a more formal encounter over dinner that evening and a full plenary session the next day.

In an article entitled Boris and Bill by Strobe Talbott for the Washington Post, Yeltsin said that he got so drunk during his presidential visit 1994 that he was found standing outside the White House in his underpants, trying to hail a taxi so he could go out for a pizza.

The following night, writes Talbott, a guard mistook him for an intruder after Yeltsin was discovered stumbling drunkenly around the basement of the official visitor's residence.

After the meeting, the two issued a joint declaration calling for the promotion of democracy. Clinton promised Yeltsin financial assistance to promote various programs, including funds to stabilize the economy and employ nuclear scientists.

Bush and Putin, 2001

President George W. Bush, left, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovenia: 'I was able to get a sense of his soul.' (Reuters)

The meeting took place in 2001, earning notoriety for U.S. president George W. Bush's affectionate comments about his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, after their meeting in Slovenia.

In a statement, Bush said of the Russian president: ''I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Later, Bush even invited Putin to visit his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Upon Putin's acceptance, he became the first foreign leader to visit the president's 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.

In a release, the U.S. said they had agreed to open co-operation and would both work toward common solutions on important regional issues, from the Balkans to Nagorno-Karabakh to Afghanistan.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 soured the relationship.

The next year, the Russians believed the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine was the result of a CIA plot. Tensions boiled until a war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 led to a complete halt in Russia-U.S. relations.

Obama and Medvedev, 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after meeting in Moscow in 2009. (Dmitry Astakhov/Reuters)

The Moscow summit between U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev and in 2009 was portrayed as the beginning of a new chapter for U.S. and Russian relations.

At a press conference at the Kremlin, Obama told reporters, "Today we've made meaningful progress and demonstrated through means and words what a more constructive U.S.-Russian relationship can look like in the 21st century."

Although the relationship was short-lived — Medvedev stepped down three years later — the two announced agreements on nuclear arms treaties and future work on missile defence, pledging they were on the path to "a fresh start" when it came to a Russian-American alliance.

Obama and Putin, 2016

Obama meets Putin: off to a rocky start. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

This meeting between Obama and Vladimir Putin was vastly different. Held on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, it was described by Obama as "candid, blunt and businesslike."

Granted, the 2016 meeting was off to a rocky start from the get-go. Upon returning to the presidency after Medvedev, Putin had accused the U.S. of instigating and encouraging mass protests in Moscow, and both presidents were on opposite ends of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

During their talks, Obama also expressed concerns to Putin about cybersecurity issues, which would play a much greater role in the next U.S. election.

Sources: Archive coverage of U.S.-Russia summits from CBC archives, Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Newsweek, Maclean's


  • An earlier version of this story said Russian leader Stalin agreed to join the war if it meant defeating Japan. In fact, the Russians had been fighting Germany since 1941 and their major achievement at the conference was getting all three parties to plan the invasion of France. They also agreed to join the fight against Japan.
    Jul 15, 2018 10:12 AM ET