Obama urges Putin to pull tens of thousands of troops back

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In a phone conversation Friday, President Barack Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back troops from the border with Ukraine.

The White House said Putin called Obama while the president was traveling in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Obama pressed Russia to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the U.S. has presented.

Obama and Putin agreed that Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss further steps.

President Obama said Ukraine’s government is pursuing de-escalation despite Russia’s incursion into Crimea, and he urged Putin to support that and to stop building up troops on its border with Ukraine.

The Russian leader asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate civilians with impunity.

The Kremlin later said Putin had drawn Obama’s attention to a ‘rampage of extremists’ in Ukraine and suggested ‘possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation’ in Ukraine.

In a statement, the Kremlin said Putin also pointed at an ‘effective blockade’ of Moldova’s separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has troops.

The call comes as Ukraine’s government and the West are concerned about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.

Russia and the local authorities have complained of Ukraine’s recent moves to limit travel across the border of the region on Ukraine’s southern border. There were fears in Ukraine that Russia could use its forces in Trans-Dniester to invade.

Obama, in a CBS News interview aired Friday but recorded before the call, said Russia is amassing troops along the Ukrainian border ‘under the guise of military exercises.’

‘It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they’ve got additional plans,’ Obama said. ‘And in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government, as well as the international community.’

Putin’s unexpected outreach to Obama came the same day that former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pushed for a vote to determine the status of each of the country’s regions – a call serving the Kremlin’s purpose of turning Ukraine into a loosely knit federation and raising the threat of more unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces.

Meanwhile, Russia’s defense minister said the Ukrainian military withdrawal from Crimea was complete – another sign that U.S. efforts to dissuade Russia from absorbing the peninsula have thus far been unsuccessful.

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