Obama and allies: Putin faces critical choices

PARIS (AP) — Laying out clear conditions, President
Barack Obama and Western allies opened a pathway for Russia to ease
tensions in Ukraine on Thursday but pointedly warned Moscow it could
face new sanctions within weeks if Vladimir Putin fails to go along.
The
leaders, who were gathered in Brussels for a wealthy-nations summit,
said the Russian president could avoid tougher penalties in part by
recognizing the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government and ending
support for an insurgency in eastern cities that is widely believed to
be backed by the Kremlin. There was no mention of rolling back Russia’s
annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which precipitated the
European crisis.
"We are at a point where Mr. Putin has the chance
to get back into a lane of international law," Obama said during a news
conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron. But Obama also
said the West "can’t simply allow drift" in Ukraine, where insurgents
continue to clash with government forces in eastern cities.
From
Brussels, Obama and other leaders jetted to France ahead of events
marking Friday’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day Normandy invasion that
paved the way for the Allied victory in World War II.
This time
Putin was on the scene. And Cameron, French President Francois Hollande
and German Chancellor Angela Merkel each were using the commemorations
as a backdrop for separate meetings with the Russian president, who
arrived in Paris.
Hollande in particular appeared to be embracing
the diplomatic mantle, hosting Putin at Elysee Palace Thursday night
just after finishing dinner with Obama at a Paris restaurant.
The
willingness of Western leaders to meet face-to-face with Putin for the
first time since he annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine marked a
noticeable shift in tactics. While leaders have spoken with Putin by
phone during the crisis, they had avoided meeting him in person and
boycotted the summit he was to host in Russia this week, choosing
instead to meet without him in Brussels.
It was the group’s first similar summit in two decades without the participation of Russia.
Obama
was not scheduled to hold a formal meeting with Putin, though the two
men were expected to have some contact at a leaders lunch Friday in
Normandy. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister
Sergey Lavrov, who have met frequently during the crisis, huddled in the
French capital Thursday evening.
Aides said Obama was pressing
Hollande, Cameron and Merkel to outline for Putin the specific
conditions he would have to meet in order to avoid more sanctions. The
West wants Putin to recognize the results of Ukraine’s May 25 election
and start a dialogue with President-elect Petro Poroshenko, end support
for the pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine and stop the flow of
arms across the Russian border.
Western leaders voiced some
cautious optimism that Putin may be shifting his view of the situation,
noting that he did not reject the results of Ukraine’s elections
outright, nor was there any overt Russian interference in the voting.
But with violence still raging near Russia’s border with Ukraine, it
remained unclear whether Putin was ready to fully de-escalate the
months-long crisis or whether the West’s threat of more sanctions could
push him in that direction.
The U.S. and the European Union
already have imposed sanctions on businesses and individuals with ties
to Putin. But they have stopped short of slapping harsher penalties on
Russia’s key economic sectors, including its energy industry.
If
there is no change in Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, the leaders
warned, more sanctions could come within weeks, possibly by the time the
European Council meets in late June. But it was unclear whether the
West would simply expand the targeted sanctions or move to sector
penalties.
Cameron took the most aggressive stance, calling for sector sanctions unless Putin quickly changes his
actions.
"The status quo is unacceptable," Cameron declared before his meeting with the Russian leader.

Britain
and the U.S. have been the leading advocates for more aggressive
penalties, while France and Germany continue to be more reluctant. In a
nod to the concerns of the latter nations, which have deep economic ties
with Russia, Obama took a softer public line than Cameron, saying,
"It’s important to take individual countries’ sensitivities in mind and
make sure that everybody is ponying up."
But he added in regard to
further sanctions: "My hope is, is that we don’t have to exercise them
because Mr. Putin’s made some better decisions."
Putin’s first
opportunity could come as early as Friday, when he and the new Ukrainian
president both attend the Normandy events commemorating the D-Day
invasion that helped wrest Western Europe from Hitler’s grip.
As
of Thursday evening, there were no plans for Putin and Poroshenko to
hold a formal meeting. White House officials said the Russian leader
would need to do more than simply have contact with Poroshenko and would
instead have to start substantive talks about the future relationship
between the two countries.
Russia has signaled its readiness for a
direct dialogue with Poroshenko, a billionaire candy tycoon who will be
sworn in on Saturday, but Putin has yet to formally recognize his
election.
Poroshenko replaces pro-Moscow President Viktor
Yanukovych, who was chased from office three months ago by crowds amid
street protests and allegations of corruption. In the wake of
Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia has annexed Crimea, the eastern regions of
Luhansk and Donetsk have declared their independence from Kiev, and the
interim Ukrainian government has launched an offensive in the east to
oppose an uprising that has left dozens dead.
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Baetz reported from Brussels. Associated Press writer Raf Casert and Matthew Lee contributed to this
report.