Ouistreham, AP—The American, Russian and incoming Ukrainian presidents spoke face-to-face about ending Ukraine’s violence, a diplomatic turning point that played out Friday along the blood-soaked beaches where the Allies battled for Europe’s peace 70 years earlier.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian president-elect, Petro Poroshenko, called for the “soonest end to bloodshed in southeastern Ukraine and combat by both parties, the Ukrainian armed forces and supporters of the federalization of Ukraine,” in a statement carried by Russian news wires.
Putin, who was frozen out of G-7 talks Thursday in Brussels, appeared to be moving incrementally back into the fold of the West following his first direct talks with the man elected to lead Ukraine after the previous pro-Kremlin president was ousted in what Putin has compared to a coup.
In their eagerly anticipated contact, Putin and Poroshenko discussed how Russia could recognize the Ukrainian elections, and a possible cease-fire, said an official at French President François Hollande’s office, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly told the Associated Press.
The French official said their 15-minute discussion “included ways to de-escalate, including the manner in which Moscow could recognize Poroshenko’s election, realizing that Putin is sending an ambassador to Kiev tomorrow.”
Outside the building where world leaders met for lunch, reporters saw an animated conversation lasting about one minute which also included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who at a much more public commemoration at Sword Beach appeared to be shuttling back and forth between the men.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Putin and Poroshenko also “confirmed that there is no alternative to settling the situation by peaceful political means.”
Merkel has talked frequently by phone with Putin since the crisis broke out. She has a long-established working relationship with Putin; she speaks Russian and he speaks German. Merkel last spoke by phone with Putin on Tuesday, and Poroshenko visited her in Berlin Thursday.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials say more than 200 people have died—a figure which can’t be independently confirmed—in fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels.
Candy magnate Poroshenko, who is to be sworn in as Ukraine’s next president on Saturday, has promised a comprehensive plan to put an end to the hostilities in the east as soon as he assumes office.
Putin held his first face-to-face meetings with Western leaders in France this week since pro-European protesters pushed out Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president in February, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and the US and EU imposed sanctions in response. He even met informally with US President Barack Obama.
In the private conversation with Merkel, German government spokesman Christiane Wirtz said that the German chancellor “took the opportunity to remind Russia again of its great responsibility” and said that following the presidential election in Ukraine, the priority needs to be a “stabilization of the situation, in particular in eastern Ukraine.”
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 Putin fails to go along.
The leaders 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.
Obama told reporters Thursday that he would tell Putin that he has a new path to engage with Ukraine with Poroshenko.
“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 he has a “businesslike” relationship with Putin, 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.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day—a time when the US, Britain and Russia were allied against Germany—marked the best opportunity for the leaders to meet since the Ukraine crisis erupted. Merkel’s key role appeared to endure through the introduction of the Sword Beach ceremony in Ouistreham, in an extraordinarily symbolic sign of Germany’s changed role in Europe.
In Ukraine, at least 15 pro-Russian rebels were killed Thursday in clashes with government troops at a border crossing with Russia, an aide to the Ukrainian interior minister said.
Speaking on a television show, Anton Herashchenko said armed men came from Russia in trucks and an infantry vehicle and tried to cross the border at the village of Marynivka in eastern Ukraine, and were supported by 100 rebels from the Ukrainian side. His report of casualties could not be confirmed independently.
Following the clash, Ukraine’s government ordered the closing of parts of the border with Russia, including the Marynivka crossing, in an attempt to prevent armed men from infiltrating into its territory. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “outraged” by this move.