The White House said on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called President Barack Obama and expressed a willingness to seek a diplomatic solution to the continuing stand-off over Crimea, offering a first glimmer of a path towards easing tensions caused by the crisis.
Officials said that Mr Putin appeared to be responding to the outlines of a possible diplomatic off-ramp that was tabled by US Secretary of State John Kerry during talks in The Hague last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The full details of what the US has proposed are still not known.
“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 telephone call was placed by Mr Putin to Mr Obama who spent Friday on an official visit to Saudi Arabia.
“President Obama noted that the Ukrainian government continues to take a restrained and de-escalatory approach to the crisis and is moving ahead with constitutional reform and democratic elections, and urged Russia to support this process and avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine."
In the call, which was the first time the two leaders have spoken since the US imposed sanctions on Russia, Mr Obama urged a withdrawal of Russian troops who have been massing at the border with Ukraine. Moscow has said they are there for routine military exercises but the US has become increasingly concerned that Mr Putin might be preparing for new incursions into Russian speaking areas of eastern Ukraine beyond Crimea.
US officials have said that the positions of the troops, believed to number about 40,000, are being deliberately concealed and that supply lines for a possible invasion have already been established.
The massing of its soldiers may “be an effort to intimidate Ukraine or it may be (that Russia) has additional plans,” Mr Obama said in interview with CBS recorded before Mr Putin’s call. Such a force could be used to stage lightning strikes into other parts of eastern Ukraine where there are large Russian populations. More difficult to ascertain, however, has been the actual intentions of President Putin.
In the interview, Mr Obama appealed to Moscow to “de-escalate the situation. The President attributed the taking of Crime, to a long-festering sulk on the part of Mr Putin dating the Soviet Union’s collapse. “I think he’s been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,” Mr. Obama said as he left Rome for Saudi Arabia after days of meetings in Europe dominated by discussions of the crisis.
“You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that were so prevalent during the Cold War,” Mr Obama said, “but in fact to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”
Any further land-grabs by Mr Putin would be in spite of efforts by Mr Obama and the European Union to isolate him diplomatically and financially. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said Moscow should also heed the easy passage on Thursday of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the snatching of Crimea, even if it had no legal teeth.
The St Petersburg-based Bank Rossiya conceded publicly on Friday that it had been forced to give up all its foreign currency business and execute only rouble-expressed transactions as a direct result of US sanctions directed against it because of the Crimea annexation. The US Congress meanwhile is expected early next week to pass a new law extending $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and new sanctions on Russia.
In a Kremlin ceremony meanwhile, Mr Putin celebrated the taking of Crimea saying it showed the prowess of the Russian military. “The recent events in Crimea were a serious test,” Mr Putin was seen declaring on state television. “They demonstrated both the completely new capabilities of our Armed Forces and the high morale of the personnel.”
The US State Department has played down suggestions by Ukraine’s ambassador to the US that as many as 100,000 Russian soldiers now threaten his country. But Washington accepts that the numbers are nonetheless growing. “We continue to see the Russian military reinforce units on their side of the border with Ukraine to the south and to the east of Ukraine,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said. “They continue to reinforce and it continues to be unclear exactly what the intent there is.”