After keeping his distance in an awkward diplomatic dance, President Barack Obama came together with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday for a brief discussion on Ukraine, face to face for the first time since the crisis over Ukraine erupted earlier this year.
The roughly 15-minute conversation on the sidelines of a lunch for world leaders in France was casual and didn’t rise to the level of a formal bilateral meeting, the White House said. Still, the surprise encounter, coupled with the news of the first meeting between Putin and Ukraine’s new resident, offered new hopes for an easing of tensions in a crisis that’s revived East-West tensions left over from the last century.
The U.S. and Russia offered few immediate details about what transpired in the lunchtime chat on the sidelines of commemorations in Normandy marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day. But Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the two had exchanged opinions about Ukraine and the situation in the nation’s restive east, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting with pro-Russian insurgents.
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“Putin and Obama spoke for the need to end violence and fighting as quickly as possible,” Peskov said.
Later, as leaders strolled casually into a nearby building for lunch, Obama winded up directly behind Putin and within arms-length, but averted his gaze, underscoring his reluctance to engage with the Russian leader he’s refused to meet with since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in a sharp escalation of tensions.
The Obama-Putin meeting followed a gathering earlier in the week in Brussels of leaders from the Group of Seven wealthier nations who pointedly met without Putin. Afterward, the leaders said the Russian president could avoid tougher sanctions in part by recognizing the legitimacy of the government that takes over in Ukraine on Saturday and ending support for an insurgency in eastern Ukrainian cities that the U.S. has said is backed by the Kremlin.
Obama and Putin have spoken multiple times by phone since the crisis erupted, but not in person, until their mutual interest in paying tribute to the bravery of Allied forces 70 years ago brought them both to the shores of France.
Obama told reporters Thursday that if he and Putin ended up speaking, he would tell the Russian leader that he has a new path to engage with Ukraine through President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who is scheduled to take office Saturday.
“If he does not, if he continues a strategy of undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine, then we have no choice but to respond” with more sanctions, Obama said.
Obama, who said his relationship with Putin is “businesslike,” expressed hope that the Russian leader is “moving in a new direction” on Ukraine since he didn’t immediately denounce Poroshenko’s election on May 25.
“But I think we have to see what he does and not what he says,” Obama said.
Putin and Poroshenko also met in France on Friday, their first such meeting since Poroshenko was elected last month. The Kremlin said Putin and Poroshenko spoke of their desire for a quick end to hostilities in southeastern Ukraine.
Friday’s exchange came during a lunch hosted by French President Francois Hollande in Benouville.