Obama and Putin have ‘frank’ phone call over Ukraine

Leaders discuss diplomatic proposal as US warns Russia to pull back troops, says White House

A woman passes a graffiti artwork depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin  extending a hand to the Ukrainian people in the Crimean city of Simferopol yesterday. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

A woman passes a graffiti artwork depicting Russian president Vladimir Putin extending a hand to the Ukrainian people in the Crimean city of Simferopol yesterday. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters


Russian president Vladimir Putin called US president Barack Obama yesterday to discuss a US diplomatic proposal for Ukraine, according to the White House, adding that Mr Obama told him that Russia must pull back its troops and not move deeper into Ukraine.

It was believed to have been the first direct conversation between the two leaders since the US and its European allies began imposing sanctions on Mr Putin’s inner circle and threatened to penalise key sectors of Russia’s economy.

Russia’s reinforcement of troops near Ukraine has brought its total forces there to as many as 40,000, US officials estimated yesterday.

The White House noted specifically that it was Mr Putin who called Mr Obama, who is ending a four-country trip in Saudi Arabia and had just returned to his Riyadh hotel after talks with King Abdullah.

Mr Putin called to discuss a US proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis, which secretary of state John Kerry again presented to Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting at The Hague earlier this week.

Pull back troops
The United States has been pressing Russia to pull back its troops to their Crimean bases and agree to talks with the Ukrainian government with international mediation.

“President Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss next steps,” the White House said.

A senior Obama administration official described the call as “frank and direct,” and said the next step is the Kerry-Lavrov follow-up discussions to see whether the Russians are serious about diplomacy.

Earlier Moscow warned of danger from western “hysteria” over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and China pledged to stay out of the crisis.

“I think there’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past,” Mr Obama told CBS news, claiming Mr Putin was “misreading American foreign policy”.

Hawkish Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham called on Mr Obama and Nato to “immediately fulfil the Ukrainian government’s request for military assistance” including “small arms, ammunition and defensive weapons, such as anti-armour and anti-aircraft systems”.

‘External threats’
Russia insists it has no plans to attack eastern Ukraine, which is mostly Russian-speaking. Alexander Malevany, deputy head of Russia’s federal security service, told Mr Putin yesterday of “a sharp increase in external threats to the state”.

“The lawful desire of the peoples of Crimea and eastern Ukrainian regions is causing hysteria in the United States and its allies,” he said, saying the West sought to “weaken Russian influence in a region that is of vital importance”.

Moscow’s foreign ministry claimed yesterday that “total ignorance of the interests of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine is now nothing new but rather a permanent reality” and that ethnic Germans, Hungarians and Czechs in Ukraine were also scared.

“They are unsettled by the unstable political situation in the country and are seriously afraid for their lives,” the ministry said, again without offering any evidence.

During a visit to Germany, Chinese president Xi Jinping said Beijing did “not have any private interests in the Ukraine question . . . All parties involved should work for a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict.”

Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, a fugitive in Russia, yesterday urged his compatriots to demand a referendum on the status of each region – echoing Russian support for a federal system that would weaken Kiev. – (Additional reporting Reuters)