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President Obama spoke by phone Friday afternoon with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, the White House said in a statement. The conversation comes as tensions mount in the region and U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia may be preparing to invade eastern Ukraine.
But the two leaders appeared to have resolved none of their differences, despite what the White House said was a warning from Obama that Putin needed to "avoid further provocations" like a Russian troop buildup near its border with eastern Ukraine. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that as many as 40,000 troops may have amassed there, and spy satellites have tracked shipments of food and medical supplies reinforcing those troops. That has led intelligence officials to warn that a Russian invasion could be imminent.
The two leaders discussed a U.S. diplomatic proposal that Secretary of State John Kerry presented to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this week in the Hague, the White House said. A senior administration official said those diplomatic talks involved finding an "off-ramp" from the crisis that would include a pull back of Russian forces, international monitors, and direct talks between Moscow and Kiev that would be backed by the international community.
During the call with Putin, Obama suggested that the Russians submit a “concrete response in writing,” and both leaders agreed that Kerry and Lavrov “would meet to discuss next steps.” A State Department spokesman, however, said that the meeting has not been scheduled yet. The White House offered no further details on when the two officials might meet.
"It's hard to say how much of this is posturing by the Russians," said Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mankoff said that it appeared Russia initiated the phone call, which he called "significant."
"I think there's no grand plan on Moscow's part," Mankoff said. Putin appeared to be "improvising" his way through the crisis, and the Russians "have been trying to figure out how to extricate themselves from this situation" without igniting a larger war. Mankoff said it was too soon to tell whether Obama and Putin's call would help lessen tensions.
The White House gave no word on Putin's response. The Itar-Tass news agency reported Friday that the Russian president "drew attention to the continuing rampage by extremists in Ukraine," who were intimidating civilians, including in the capital city of Kiev. Putin used allegations that the Ukrainian government was threatening ethnic Russians in Crimea as a pretext for invasion last month.
A U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters, said it was impossible to predict when Putin might order forces into eastern Ukraine. But more worrying to analysts tracking the unfolding situation is that military forces might move against a NATO member country like Poland, triggering what the official described as a "domino effect" that could ignite a broader conflagration.
In an interview with Foreign Policy last week, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, "Our concern is that Russia won't stop [in Crimea]. There is a clear risk that Russia will go beyond Crimea and the next goal will be the eastern provinces of Ukraine."