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Despite Obama, Putin discussing Ukraine crisis, signs of progress few

AP, Reuters, AFP-JIJI

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke for the first time in more than two weeks Monday but showed little sign of agreement, with the U.S. leader urging pro-Russian forces to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine and Putin denying that Moscow is interfering in the region.

The White House said Russia initiated the phone call, which came as pro-Russian forces deepened their insurgency in Ukraine’s east, seizing more than a dozen government buildings.

“The president expressed grave concern about Russian government support for the actions of armed, pro-Russian separatists who threaten to undermine and destabilize the government of Ukraine,” the White House said in a description of Obama’s call with Putin. “The president emphasized that all irregular forces in the country need to lay down their arms, and he urged President Putin to use his influence with these armed, pro-Russian groups to convince them to depart the buildings they have seized.”

In its own description of the call, the Kremlin said Putin told Obama reports of Russian interference in the region were “based on unreliable information.” The Russian leader also urged Obama to discourage the Ukrainian government from using force against those protesters.

Both sides did suggest that plans will go forward for talks Thursday in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and Europe. But the White House said Obama told Putin that while a diplomatic solution remains his preferred option, “it cannot succeed in an environment of Russian military intimidation on Ukraine’s borders, armed provocation within Ukraine, and escalatory rhetoric by Kremlin officials.”

U.S. officials say there is compelling evidence that Russia is fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, but have suggested Obama has not yet concluded that Putin’s actions warrant broader sanctions on key Russian economic sectors.

“We are actively evaluating what is happening in eastern Ukraine, what actions Russia has taken, what transgressions they’ve engaged in,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “And we are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose.”

Administration officials confirmed Monday that CIA Director John Brennan visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev over the weekend, breaking with the administration’s typical practice of not disclosing the spy agency chief’s travel.

Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accused Brennan of being behind Ukraine’s decision to send troops into the east to try to quash an increasingly brazen pro-Russian insurgency.

While U.S. officials denied those accusations, confirmation of Brennan’s visit could provide fodder for Russian officials to create a pretext for further incursions into eastern Ukraine.

Carney also denied that a new Cold War is brewing between Russia and the United States, but an incident involving a Russian jet over the Black Sea and a U.S. cruise missile destroyer did hark back to the tensions of that earlier era.

The Pentagon said the Su-24 fighter made several low-altitude, high-speed passes near the USS Donald Cook, cruising in international waters off Romania over the weekend.

“The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from Donald Cook,” said Col. Steven Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.

“This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements on a professional interaction between our militaries.”

The vessel was sent to the Black Sea in a show of Washington’s solidarity with its Eastern European NATO allies concerned about Russia’s incursion into Crimea.

The plane was about 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) from the American ship but did not directly traverse its decks, a military official said on condition of anonymity.

Obama and Putin last spoke on March 28. Since then, pro-Russian forces have undertaken a rampage of storming and occupying local government offices, police stations and a small airport in eastern Ukraine.

The pro-Russian rebels have seized buildings in around 10 other towns and cities across other eastern provinces that form the heartland of Ukraine’s heavy industry.

In the town of Slovyansk, where the authorities failed to follow through with their announced “anti-terrorist” operation, rebels called for Putin’s help.

Oleksander Turchynov, Ukraine’s interim president, said Monday the offensive against the rebels will still go ahead. But in a sign of discord behind the scenes in Kiev, he sacked the state security chief in charge of the operation.

Earlier Monday, Turchynov urged the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops to eastern Ukraine.

In a telephone call with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Turchynov suggested that the anti-terrorist operation be conducted jointly by Ukrainian security forces and U.N. peacekeepers, according to the presidential website.

Peacekeepers, however, will have to be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds a veto.

In one of the first signs of a military deployment by Kiev’s forces, a column of two Ukrainian tanks and more than 20 armored personnel carriers packed with paratroopers was seen about 70 km (50 miles) northwest of Slovyansk on Monday evening, according to Maksim Dondyuk, a video journalist who filmed them.

In Donetsk, rebels holed up in the administrative headquarters of a province that is home to 10 percent of Ukraine’s population said they planned to seize control of infrastructure and the levers of state power. They have declared an independent “People’s Republic of Donetsk” and sought Putin’s protection if they are attacked.

In a bid to undercut the rebels’ demands, Turchynov held out the prospect of a countrywide referendum on the future shape of the Ukrainian state. Pro-Russian secessionists want separate referendums in their regions, which Kiev says is illegal.

The White House has blamed the unrest on Russia, saying there are undeniable similarities between the situation in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s maneuvers in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last month.

“The evidence is compelling that Russia is supporting these efforts and involved in these efforts,” Carney said. “You saw this coordinated effort in a number of cities across eastern Ukraine all at once that sure didn’t look organic to observers from the outside.”

Despite those assertions, it is unclear whether the U.S. plans to respond with deeper economic penalties.

Obama has repeatedly warned that Russian advances into eastern Ukraine will mark a serious escalation of the crisis that would warrant a stronger international response, including the prospect of sanctions on Russia’s energy sector and other key industries.

But the administration has avoided saying whether Russia’s actions in the east thus far have crossed that line. U.S. officials are also still trying to rally support for sector sanctions from Europe, which has a far deeper economic relationship with Russia and will therefore be more likely to be negatively affected by the penalties.

As part of that effort, Obama spoke Monday with French President Francois Hollande.

The French leader said in a statement that he and Obama discussed the importance of avoiding provocations in Ukraine and establishing a policy of strong and calibrated sanctions along with other European partners.

A high-ranking European Union official said foreign ministers did decide Monday to sanction more Russians with asset freezes and visa bans, though they appeared to stop short of the broader penalties on Russia’s economy.