WASHINGTON — Speaking for the first time in more than two weeks, President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed little sign of agreement on Monday, with the U.S. leader urging pro-Russian forces to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and Putin denying that Moscow was interfering in the region.
The White House said Russia initiated the phone call, which came as pro-Russian forces deepened their insurgency in Ukraine’s east, seizing more than a dozen government buildings.
“The president expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine,” the White House said in a description of Obama’s call with Putin. “The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.”
In its own description of the call, the Kremlin said Putin told Obama reports of Russian interference in the region were “based on unreliable information.” The Russian leader also urged Obama to discourage the Ukrainian government from using force against those protesters.
Both sides did suggest that plans would go forward for talks Thursday in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and Europe. But the White House said Obama told Putin that while a diplomatic solution remained his preferred option, “it cannot succeed in an environment of Russian military intimidation on Ukraine’s borders, armed provocation within Ukraine, and escalatory rhetoric by Kremlin officials.”
U.S. officials say there is compelling evidence that Russia is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, but have suggested Obama has not yet concluded that Putin’s actions warrant broader sanctions on key Russian economic sectors.
“We are actively evaluating what is happening in eastern Ukraine, what actions Russia has taken, what transgressions they’ve engaged in,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “And we are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose.”
Administration officials confirmed Monday that CIA chief John Brennan visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev over the weekend, breaking with the administration’s typical practice of not disclosing the director’s travel.
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accused Brennan of being behind Ukraine’s decision to send troops into the east to try to quash an increasingly brazen pro-Russian insurgency.
While U.S. officials denied those accusations, confirmation of Brennan’s visit could provide fodder for Russian officials to create a pretext for further incursions into eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian insurgents who have seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine dug in today, fortifying their positions and erecting fresh barricades as Ukrainian tanks were seen within 44 miles of one city controlled by pro-Moscow gunmen.
Roads into Slovyansk, a city some 100 miles east of Russia that has come under ever more secure control of the gunmen since Saturday, were dotted with checkpoints. One at the entrance into town was waving a Russian flag. Another bore a sign reading “If we don’t do it, nobody will.”
Despite mounting fears of an imminent assault by Ukrainian government troops, the town appeared calm at midday.
In Kiev, Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced an “anti-terrorist operation” to root out the “separatists,” but it was unclear how that measure differed from the one announced Monday, which resulted in no visible action.
Russia strongly warned Kiev against using force against the pro-Russian protesters, saying Moscow could walk out of an international conference devoted to the Ukrainian crisis scheduled for Thursday.
“You can’t send in tanks and at the same time hold talks and the use force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a press conference today after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “One cannot issue invitations to talks while at the same time issuing criminal orders for the use of armed force against the people there.”
AP writer Yuras Karmanau in Horlivka, Ukraine, contributed reporting.