Ukraine on the line: Obama, Putin find little common ground in telephone diplomacy

With the crisis in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is once again at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Here’s the background to know about Russia’s flinty president. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

When President Obama and Russian President Vladi­mir Putin discussed Ukraine in two lengthy phone calls this past week, neither expected the other to say: “You know what (Barack/Vladimir)? You’re right.”

Instead, each leader laid out his own set of facts with no common ground between them, according to public and private accounts of the calls. Putin told Obama that ethnic Russians in Crimea needed protection from attacks by Ukrainian nationalists. The government in Kiev, he said, was illegal, and Russia’s actions to defend them were completely legitimate.

Not so, Obama responded. There were no attacks against ethnic Russians, and Putin’s deployment of troops to Crimea was illegal. Obama said Russia could withdraw and allow international monitors to assess the situation, or risk serious international consequences, according to a senior administration official listening in.

But despite the near-total lack of common ground, the U.S. side, at least, considered the calls useful. It’s always worth talking to Putin, the senior official said, because he says what he thinks and may even reflect later on a conversation that seemed to go nowhere at the time.

“If there’s a chance for an outcome” in Ukraine, said Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow until last week, “it’s only going to happen in that channel. It’s very important to understand about the nature of Russian decision-making right now. . . . The only person who can resolve that crisis in Russia is Vladimir Putin.”

So far, there is little evidence that their 21 / 2 hours of conversation over the past week has budged Obama or Putin. But while nothing seems to have been gained, “nothing is lost [by] engagement,” McFaul said.

If not icy, at least chilled

Obama has acknowledged that he got along better with Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri Medvedev, and it is no secret that relations have been less than warm since Putin reassumed the Russian presidency nearly two years ago.

“I wouldn’t call it icy,” Obama said in an interview with NBC as the network began its coverage of the Sochi Olympics in early February.

When they’ve been together in public, Obama acknowledged, Putin often looks bored. “My sense is that’s part of his shtick back home politically, as wanting to look like the tough guy,” Obama said. But “the one thing I will give Mr. Putin credit for,” he said, is that “there is not a lot of beating around the bush or niceties” when they talk business. “I tell him where I strongly disagree with him and he does the same.”

McFaul, who participated in many face-to-face and telephone exchanges between the two leaders, agreed. “These are two presidents that engage pretty deeply on issues quickly, “ he said. “It’s all substance — no diplo-speak.”

U.S. officials said the official Russian statements about their recent telephone talks were accurate reflections of Putin’s position.

“In reply to Mr. Obama’s concern over the possibility of the use of Russian armed forces” in Crimea, a Russian statement about their March 1 conversation said, “Vladimir Putin drew attention to the provocative and criminal actions on the part of ultranationalists” supported by the Ukrainian government.

“Russia reserves the right to protect its interests,” the statement said.

A statement about a second call, on Thursday, reflected what Obama has described as a slight “pause” in Russia’s rhetorical stance, even if there was little evidence on the ground in Crimea, where up to 20,000 Russian troops have taken over, according to the Pentagon.

After repeating his insistence on the legality and need for Russia action, “the President of Russia stressed the paramount importance of Russian-U.S. relations for ensuring stability and security in the world,” the Russian statement read. “These relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements on individual international issues, even if they are very significant.” Talks, the statement said, should continue.

Less than a year ago, Russia and the United States agreed to revamp the “hotline” between them, established in 1963 to avoid unintentional nuclear war, to address cyberwarfare concerns. But in the current age of instantaneous communications, world leaders communicate far more easily and directly by telephone.

Dialing up

Over the past week, Putin has matched Obama call for call, speaking to the presidents of China and France, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

His conversations, Putin said at a Tuesday news conference, were confidential and he was not authorized to disclose them. But “without giving any names,” he said in what appeared to be a reference to his talks with Obama, “I will comment on them in a general sense.”

“We are often told our actions are illegitimate,” he said. “But when I ask, ‘Do you think everything you do is legitimate?’ they say yes.”

“Our partners, especially in the United States, always clearly formulate their own geopolitical and state interests and follow them with persistence,” he said, making specific reference to U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. “Then, using the principle ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ they draw the whole world in. And those who do not join in get beaten until they do.”

Although some U.S. lawmakers have criticized Obama as appearing weak in the face of Russian aggression, U.S. officials believe that, if anything, Putin overestimates U.S. power.

In Putin’s worldview, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid inflaming an already volatile situation, the United States is responsible for engineering virtually every recent upheaval in the world, from the Arab Spring to revolution in Ukraine. And, despite Obama’s efforts to differentiate his own policies from those of his predecessors, Putin appears to see them as an unbroken continuum.

“Our approach is different,” Putin said. “We proceed from the conviction that we always act legitimately. I have personally always been an advocate of acting in compliance with international law.”

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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