- (Photo: Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned President Barack Obama Friday to discuss a U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this week, the White House said.
A White House release said Obama asked Moscow to pull back its troops and not move deeper into Ukraine, in what could be the first direct conversation between the two presidents since the U.S. and European sanctions on Putin's inner circle following the Russian annexation of Crimea.
"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.
The conversation between Obama and Putin took place about a week after Putin signed documents to complete the process of annexing Crimea, defying Western leaders who have said they will continue to consider the region as part of Ukraine.
There are now reports of the deployment of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border. Russia may have 40,000 troops at the border, according to U.S. estimates. But officials in Ukraine believe the number of troops could be as high as 88,000.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that Putin assured him he had no intention of making another military move into Ukraine following Crimea's annexation, according to The Associated Press. "President Putin ... told me that he had no intention to make any military move," said Ban, who visited Moscow and Kiev on March 20-21.
According to the White House, "President Obama reiterated that the United States has strongly opposed the actions that Russia has already taken to violate Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
However, the Russian government claimed that Putin led the conservation on Friday, telling Obama, who was in Saudi Arabia, that the international community needs to work together to stabilize the Ukraine situation, Fox News reported.
The Russian president also drew Obama's attention to the "continued rampage of extremists" in Ukraine, according to a release by the Kremlin, which made no mention of Crimea or pulling back the troops.
Meanwhile, Obama also appeared in a CBS News interview Friday. "You've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing," he said. "It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they've got additional plans."
Russia needs to immediately move back the troops and begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community to resolve and de-escalate the situation, Obama added in the interview.
The annexation of Crimea followed massive protests in Ukraine that began after then President Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia, suspended preparations for signing an Association Agreement and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, in favor of closer economic relations with Russia.
The Ukraine parliament removed Yanukovych on Feb. 22, after which he fled to Russia and ethnic Russian forces seized the region. The Crimean peninsula, an autonomous republic in the southeastern region of Ukraine, was part of Russia until 1954.