RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss a U.S. proposal to resolve the crisis in Ukraine – and they agreed to have Secretary of State John Kerry meet with his Russian counterpart to discuss it, the White House and Kremlin said.
The rare call from Putin came as Obama wrapped up a weeklong visit in which he secured European commitments to isolate Russia for the military seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean region. Experts warned against reading too much into the call and said it may only be Putin’s “opening bids.”
The White House said Kerry “had again presented” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a U.S. offer of a diplomatic resolution when the two met earlier this week at The Hague. The two talked for hours just two weeks ago in Paris in a round of discussions the White House had hoped would head off a vote for Crimea to join Russia.
The White House has suggested an “off ramp” for Russia that would include sending Russian troops in Crimea back to their barracks and opening direct talks with Ukraine’s provisional government.
The White House said Obama suggested to Putin that Russia put a “concrete response” in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss the next step.
The Kremlin had a different take on the call but agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet “in the near future” to talk.
A Kremlin statement said that Putin “drew Barack Obama’s attention to 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.”
Foreign policy experts cautioned that the call does not mean Putin is in retreat.
“I don’t think he’s seen the light. I just sense no give here,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group. “I always felt the diplomatic off ramp was more for us than for Putin.”
The experts warned that Putin’s motives remain unclear, nor it is obvious what he’ll discuss.
Does he want to buy time and keep Ukraine in a tense situation? Maybe the Russian president thinks “a less stable Ukraine will have less of a chance of integrating into the European Union. He may want to keep diplomatic discussions going on even as his forces remain on the border,” said Christopher Chivvis, a senior political analyst at the RAND Corp.
The latest offer fits a Putin pattern. “It may be he thinks he’s in a good position to negotiate,” said Benjamin Friedman, a research fellow in defense studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian Washington think tank. “The Russians have objectives that can be accomplished – at least some – diplomatically. They want a Ukraine that is friendly to them.”
Friedman speculated that Russia may have broader goals having to do with what NATO and the United States can and cannot achieve in what Russia considers its neighborhood.
This latest diplomatic maneuvering should be viewed as simply “opening bids,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow in foreign policy studies at Washington’s Brookings Institution.