US President Obama confirms that he would save Russian counterpart Putin from drowning

SEOUL (AFP) - It's official: even though they are involved in the worst East-West clash since the Cold War, United States President Barack Obama would save Russian President Vladimir Putin from drowning.

Mr Obama on Friday delivered his answer to a question posed to Mr Putin during a live television appearance earlier this month - would his US rival come to his rescue? Mr Putin answered by saying that though he did not have a special personal relationship with Mr Obama, he thought the US leader was "a decent and brave person".

"And of course, he would."

In a rare moment of humour at an alarming moment of the Ukraine crisis, Mr Obama confirmed he would indeed throw the Russian leader a lifeline, when questioned by a US journalist.

"I absolutely would save Mr Putin if he were drowning," Mr Obama said.

"If anybody is out there drowning, I would save them.

"I used to be a pretty good swimmer, I grew up in Hawaii," Mr Obama said, before adding with a rueful smile: "I am a little bit out of practice."

South Koreans might have been puzzled by the question - given the national mourning over the loss of a ferry packed with high school children less than two weeks ago and the grim search for bodies in the upturned vessel.

In a news conference with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, Mr Obama also cast his own judgement on Putin's character.

"Mr Putin is not a stupid man," Mr Obama said, reasoning that the Russian leader had acknowledged that Western sanctions imposed as a result of Russia's annexation of Crimea were having an impact on the Russian economy.

Even before the Ukraine showdown, Mr Putin and Mr Obama had a difficult relationship and had endured several photo-ops after summits noted for stilted body language.

Mr Obama once compared Mr Putin to a "bored kid" slouching at the back of the class, and wondered whether the Kremlin chief's public persona was just a "tough guy" act and a "shtick" to impress his domestic political constituency.