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. Amid intelligence reports warning of a further Russian incursion into Ukraine, U.S. officials were trying to puzzle through the situation Friday night, unsure what Putin was up to, but deeply suspicious.
“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 the continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards 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 Kremlin nor the White House said what those steps might be. The White House said Putin was responding to a U.S. proposal that Secretary of State John Kerry had presented to Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov during a meeting at The Hague earlier in the week, a proposal developed in consultation with Ukraine’s interim government and European allies.
Kerry and Lavrov have been passing a “working document” back and forth that explores ways for the Russians to pull back militarily, as well as ideas for how the international community could support constitutional reform in Ukraine. Among other things, it could include guaranteeing more autonomy for certain regions, disarming the militias that have emerged and defining Ukraine’s relationship to international alliances like NATO.
While not mentioning Crimea, the Kremlin drew attention to Ukraine’s blockade of Transnistria, 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, Transnistria has relied on land access through Ukraine for crucial imports.
The Kremlin 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 Transnistria, 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 Transnistria as an ominous sign and possible predicate for Russian intervention, just as Moscow cited unsubstantiated threats to Russian speakers in Crimea when it ordered troops to seize the peninsula.
Putin’s willingness to negotiate suggested some confidence that he will be dealing with the West from a position of strength, having consolidated his grip on Crimea and largely dispersed remaining Ukrainian military units that had been holed up awaiting instructions from Kiev. The Ukrainian government this week formally ordered a withdrawal.
But U.S. officials hoped that the move reflected 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. Other members of the Group of Eight advanced states responded by suspending Russia as a member.