BRUSSELS — With the backing of other world leaders, President Obama effectively set a one-month deadline for Russia to reverse its intervention in Ukraine and help quash a pro-Russian separatist uprising or else he said it would face international sanctions far more severe than anything it had endured so far.
Obama and other leaders of seven major democracies meeting in Brussels demanded that President Vladimir Putin of Russia recognize and negotiate directly with the newly elected leader of Ukraine, stop the flow of fighters and arms across the border and press separatists to disarm, relinquish seized public buildings and join talks with the central authorities in Kiev.
“Russia continues to have a responsibility to convince them to end their violence, lay down their weapons and enter into a dialogue with the Ukrainian government,” Obama said at a news conference alongside Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain after a meeting of leaders of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrial powers. “On the other hand, if Russia’s provocations continue, it’s clear from our discussions here that the G-7 nations are ready to impose additional costs on Russia.”
For the first time, Obama laid out a time frame, saying the process could not drag out. “We will have a chance to see what Mr. Putin does over the next two, three, four weeks,” Obama said, “and if he remains on the current course, then we’ve already indicated what kinds of actions that we’re prepared to take.”
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The Group of Seven’s summit meeting was the first in two decades to exclude Russia, which began attending as a guest in 1993 and joined as a full-fledged member in 1998 — making it the Group of Eight — but was suspended after annexing Crimea.
So far, the United States and European allies have imposed limited sanctions, aimed at individual Russians and a handful of their companies, in retaliation for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the violence in eastern Ukraine. The next stage would be broader, cutting off dealings with sectors of the economy such as finance and energy.
European leaders have resisted such an escalation, in part, because their countries have much deeper economic ties to Russia than does the United States. Germany receives about one-third of its natural gas from Russia. Britain has extensive banking ties. France does a thriving arms business with Russia.
Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany had threatened to impose sanctions if Russia disrupted the May 25 election in Ukraine that produced Petro Poroshenko as the new president. Pro-Russia separatists worked to stop the voting in the east, but the United States and European leaders chose not to see the problems as grave enough to merit following through on the threat.
U.S. and European officials are hoping Putin’s decision to pull some troops back from the border signals that he wants to defuse the confrontation, either because of the damage done to his economy or because he did not find as much popular support for joining Russia in eastern Ukraine as he did in Crimea.
In a small sign of a thaw, Russia said Thursday that its ambassador to Kiev, Mikhail Zurabov, would return to Ukraine in time to attend Saturday’s inauguration of Poroshenko. Zurabov was withdrawn in February when Russia objected to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych.
It remained unclear what the West would do if Russia largely left matters as they were, neither escalating the situation nor reining in the separatists. France has said that as things stood, it intended to go ahead with a $1.6 billion sale of warships to Russia; Obama took issue with that decision again Thursday before leaving Brussels for Paris to dine with President François Hollande of France.
Hollande, Cameron and Merkel all scheduled individual meetings with Putin for Thursday or Friday; Hollande, in fact, hosted him for a light supper just after dining with Obama.
The issue of meeting with Putin generated a “very detailed discussion” during the leaders’ private session, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, who, like Obama, opposed doing so. “We’re all agreed on what the next steps would be should we not see appropriate change in Putin’s behavior,” Harper said afterward.
Cameron defended meeting separately with Putin. “It’s right to have this dialogue, particularly if you have a clear message and a clear point to make,” he said. “I think there’s a world of difference between having a dialogue with President Putin and excluding someone” from the summit meeting.
Hollande likewise brushed off the dispute. “The important thing is we have the same language, the same arguments on Ukraine all together,” he said. “We are seven.”