Putin calls Obama, wants talks on Ukraine

By Peter Baker, Michael D. Shear and David M. Herszenhorn / New York Times News Service

Published Mar 29, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — President Vladimir Putin of Russia reached out to President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss ideas about how to peacefully resolve the international standoff over Ukraine, a surprise move by Moscow to pull back from the brink of an escalated 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.

But 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 when he has been isolated internationally. While the White House account of the call emphasized the possible diplomatic movement, the Kremlin’s version stressed Putin’s complaints about “extremists” in Ukraine and introduced into the mix of issues on the table the fate of Transnistria, another pro-Russian breakaway province outside his borders.

Neither U.S. nor European officials expect Putin to easily reverse his seizure of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow annexed last week after Russian troops took control there. Indeed, the Kremlin statement made no mention of Crimea, suggesting that Putin considers that a fait accompli and no longer up for discussion. Analysts said the Russian leader might be seeking some sort of de facto 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 dinner 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.”