WASHINGTON — President Vladimir Putin of Russia phoned President Obama on Friday to discuss how to peacefully resolve the international standoff over Ukraine, a surprise move by Russia to pull back from the brink of a confrontation that has put Europe and much of the world on edge.
After weeks of provocative moves punctuated by a menacing buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border, Putin’s unexpected telephone call to Obama offered a hint of a possible settlement. The two leaders agreed to have their top diplomats meet to discuss concrete proposals for defusing the crisis that has generated the most serious clash between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
It remained uncertain whether Putin was seriously interested in a resolution that would go far enough to satisfy the United States, Ukraine and Europe, or instead was seeking a diplomatic advantage at a time he has been isolated internationally.
Putin’s call came after a televised interview in which Obama called for Russia to pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border. Russian officials say the troops are participating in military exercises, but U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned that the size — in the tens of thousands — and makeup of the Russian troops massed along the border, could portend a new Russian attempt to annex swaths of its neighbor.
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In recent days, Russia has deployed sustainment units in addition to combat forces to border areas and has taken steps to conceal some of the contingents, U.S. officials said.
In the phone call, Obama urged Putin to “avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine.”
While the U.S. account of the call emphasized the possible diplomatic movement, the Russian version stressed Putin’s complaints about “extremists” in Ukraine and introduced into the mix of issues on the table the fate of Trans-Dniester, another pro-Russian breakaway province outside Russia’s borders.
Neither U.S. nor European officials expect Putin to easily reverse his seizure of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed last week after Russian troops took control there. Indeed, the statement made no mention of Crimea, suggesting Putin considers that no longer up for discussion. Analysts said the Russian leader might be seeking some sort of acceptance of that new status quo in exchange for not sending troops massed on the border into eastern Ukraine.
Obama took the call from Putin at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, after Obama finished a two-hour meeting with King Abdullah to discuss Iran, Syria and other security issues.
“President Obama underscored to President Putin that the United States continues to support a diplomatic path in close consultation with the government of Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian people with the aim of de-escalation of the crisis,” the White House said in a statement. “President Obama made clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
In its statement posted on its official website, the Kremlin said Putin “drew Barack Obama’s attention to continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation toward peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies in various regions and in Kiev with impunity.”
“In light of this,” it added, “the president of Russia suggested examining possible steps the global community can take to help stabilize the situation.”
Neither the Russian nor U.S. government said what those steps might be. The Obama administration said Putin was responding to a U.S. proposal that Secretary of State John Kerry had presented to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a meeting at The Hague this week, a proposal developed in consultation with Ukraine’s interim government and European allies.
Standoff in Kiev
In citing extremist action, Putin sought to capitalize on an internal showdown in Kiev. Members of a nationalist group, Right Sector, have surrounded the Ukrainian Parliament in the past two days, demanding the resignation of Ukraine’s acting interior minister over the shooting death of one of the group’s leaders this week in western Ukraine.
The presence of masked, armed demonstrators threatening to storm the Parliament building offered the Russian government an opportunity to bolster its contention that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Moscow ally, after pro-European street protests last month was an illegal coup carried out by right-wing extremists with Western encouragement.
In fact, the nationalist groups, largely based in western Ukraine, had formed just one segment of a broad coalition of demonstrators who occupied the streets of Kiev for months demanding Yanukovych’s ouster.
The Ukrainian Parliament voted Friday to create a special commission to investigate the death of the Right Sector leader, Oleksander Muzychko, who was also known as Sashko Bily and was shot to death in the city of Rivne, apparently as law-enforcement authorities tried to arrest him.
The Parliament decided not to vote on a proposal calling for the resignation of the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, until the commission makes its report. Members of Right Sector said they were not satisfied with that decision, but would only picket the Parliament building and not try to go inside as some had threatened. Some of the group’s members carried clubs and axes.
Also Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the Ukrainian military withdrawal from Crimea was complete. Ukrainian soldiers were seen carrying duffel bags and flags as they shipped out of the Black Sea peninsula that Russia has annexed.
While not mentioning Crimea, Russia drew attention to Ukraine’s blockade of Trans-Dniester, a breakaway, pro-Russian region of Moldova, another former Soviet republic to the south. Frozen for years in an international limbo, neither accepting Moldova’s rule nor formally part of Russia, Trans-Dniester has relied on land access through Ukraine for crucial imports.
Russia said a new blockade would “significantly complicate the living conditions for the region’s residents, impeding their movement and normal trade and economic activities,” and it urged negotiations to address the situation.
Russia has more than 1,000 troops in Trans-Dniester, the remnants of a peacekeeping force deployed since 1992, and it has relied on overland access through Ukraine to supply them. The next talks on the conflict are scheduled for Vienna on April 10 and 11.
Some officials in the region have asked to follow Crimea and become part of Russia. Moldova has been working toward the same sweeping political and free-trade agreements with the European Union that triggered Russian opposition in Ukraine.
U.S. officials and analysts saw Putin’s reference to Trans-Dniester as an ominous sign and possible predicate for Russian intervention, just as he cited unsubstantiated threats to Russian speakers in Crimea when ordering troops to seize the peninsula.
U.S. officials hope the call reflects a growing realization that much of the world was against Putin. Although sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe so far have been limited largely to individual Russians and a Russian bank, Moscow has found little if any support for its actions, even among allies like China.
Material from The Associated Press and Tribune Washington Bureau is included in this report.