Inside the Obama-Putin power huddle

Obama slams Putin's Middle East strategy
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Story highlights

  • A virtual walk through the room reveals much warmth.
  • World leaders often engage with each other in animated conversations.

Antalya, Turkey (CNN)It is a curious thing, at a summit as big as the G-20, to see world leaders just mingling together in their downtime between sessions.

    Suddenly the video on the big screen in the press room, piped in from a remote camera provided by the host, opens into a large hotel reception hall -- where for a few fascinating minutes you are the fly on the wall, hanging around the ultimate cocktail party packed with the world's most powerful figures, watching what transpires.
    But you don't actually have to be there, which means they act much more naturally than when the White House press corps is visibly present.
    There is less awkardness than one might expect. Like any proper cocktail party full of folks who have love/hate relationships (or in many cases, pure hate), you fully anticipate seeing a few strained conversations going down. Or maybe some glimpses of more popular presidents starting to look round the room for someone cooler to chat with or the odd semi-dictator standing off to the side by himself.
    But with this crowd, a virtual walk through the room reveals much warmth: animated conversations, the sense that many know each other well and are very happy to spend some moments together more casually, outside of meetings.
    There's India's Narendra Modi intently chatting, using his hands for emphasis. There's the Saudi delegation adjusting their matching shiny golden robes as they enter the room together and walk around regally. President Xi of China smiling while listening to someone's world leader smalltalk. And no one is the awkward loner standing off to the side.
    But wait -- what's that? Over in a corner by the bar, not even a quiet corner in this huge, crowded room, the camera seems to stumble upon a powwow that makes the press room jump up and rush to the screen for a better look. Yes, it is -- Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin and a member of each of their delegations, sitting in small chairs that you'd find in any hotel lounge, all leaning in, heads slightly bowed, looking extremely serious. The men are clearly engaged in a deep conversation that ended up going on for more than a half hour.
    President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and aides huddle at a G20 summit on November 15, 2015.
    It seemed an strange setting for a pull-aside meeting between two of the most powerful, recognizable, and in many ways at-odds figures on the planet, trying to hash out the most pressing, thorny issues on the planet. But there they were.
    Like a mini-summit all its own, between the hors d'oeuvres and the glassware.
    White House administration officials say it just happens like this sometimes. It's easy to forget there might be a TV camera present, when it's just one camera. But they do worry about the audio leaking out, when it's supposed to be, you know, private.
    One official said there have even been times during such pull-asides when other world leaders have started taking pictures and videos of the meetings with their iPhones!
    Not cool, apparently. Definitely a presidential cocktail party faux pas. Rookie move.
    Later, the White House released a summary of the Obama-Putin huddle, calling it "constructive" and "centered around ongoing efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria."
    Despite the chasm between them on whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should stay in power, as well as whom Russia should be bombing and not bombing there, the White House said the two agreed "on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition." Starting with a ceasefire.
    Obama did have to bring up that other situation in Ukraine, calling on Putin to, you know, remove all the heavy weapons and fighters and release those hostages. As well as the territory itself. Back to Ukraine. A request made for what seems now to be around the millionth time.
    But before the half-impromtu, half-planned little meeting by the bar could end, someone in the American delegation very obviously noticed (with some surprise and mild alarm) the lone camera hanging around, once its operator realized it was capturing something very rare and interesting indeed.
    With that, the surrounding group of Americans managed to body-block the corner entirely from view. Try as it might, that camera could not find a way back in, past the now annoyed-looking Americans.
    And the meeting was semi-private once more. Fly on the wall squashed. Much to the sadness of the press room.