By Justin Sink - 04/14/14 07:50 PM EDT
A defiant Vladimir Putin told President Obama his accusations of Russian meddling in Ukraine are mere “speculations” that are “based on inaccurate information," as the two leaders discussed the brewing crisis in the country.
In a phone conversation described by a senior administration official as "frank and direct," Putin and Obama traded accusations of blame for violence that has gripped cities in the Eastern regions of the former Soviet republic.
According to the White House, President Obama expressed "grave concern" that Russia was supporting the armed separatists who had taken control of government buildings.
"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," the White House said in a statement.
Putin, meanwhile, described the pro-Russia, militia-led protests in Eastern Ukrainian cities as “the result of the Kiev authorities’ unwillingness and inability to take into account the interests of the Russian and Russian-speaking population," according to the Kremlin.
The call came at Russia's behest after leaders in Kiev had warned they could undertake antiterrorist military action against the pro-Russian forces.
The U.S. and other Western powers have accused Putin of being behind the escalation, and warned that Russia could face broad economic sanctions for its involvement.
"The president noted Russia’s growing political and economic isolation as a result of its actions in Ukraine and made clear that the costs Russia already has incurred will increase if those actions persist," the White House said.
Putin denied those accusations, and placed blame on Kiev’s government, which on Monday was suggesting that troops from the United Nations should be sent to act as peacekeepers.
“The current Ukrainian authorities must think first and foremost about truly involving all the main political forces and regions in a transparent process for developing a new constitution that guarantees the main rights and freedoms for citizens, the nation’s federal structure and its non-aligned status,” the Kremlin said.
President Obama responded by telling Putin that the government in Kiev had "made real offers on addressing concerns regarding the decentralization of appropriate powers to local governments," according to a senior administration official.
Tensions between the U.S. and Russia have intensified in the last few days as the prospect has increased that more parts of Ukraine might attempt secession.
Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's interim president, told parliamentary leaders he was open to holding a constitutional referendum alongside next month's presidential elections that would weaken the control of Kiev over the separate regions within the former Soviet republic.
The comments underscored the political quandary facing Turchynov and other leaders in Kiev, who are grappling with increasingly aggressive pro-Russian forces in the country's eastern region.
The Ukrainian military is reluctant to intervene, fearful of sparking an all-out civil war or an invasion by Russian forces. But the threat of sanctions has done little to quell pro-Russian militias, and the situation appears in danger of escalating quickly.
The European Union may hold an emergency summit next week to consider additional sanctions, which would likely be made in concert with the United States. The E.U. and U.S. could move against key Russian economic sectors, including the gas, weapons, or banking industries.
"We are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.
Obama also spoke with French President Francis Hollande about the situation.
“The leaders underscored that Russia will face significant additional costs if it continues this behavior,” the White House said in a statement. “President Obama noted that the government of Ukraine has acted with great restraint and praised the Ukrainian government’s efforts to unify the country by holding free and fair presidential elections on May 25 and pursuing an inclusive constitutional reform process.”
The White House also confirmed that American intelligence officials, including CIA director John Brennan, had visited Kiev over the weekend to coordinate with government officials there.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Monday warned the U.S. was ready to impose more sanctions on Russia and separatist leaders within Ukraine.
The United States and European partners have already targeted some Ukrainian and Russian officials for economic and travel sanctions after the Kremlin moved to seize the ethnically Russian Crimean peninsula earlier this year.
— This story was first posted at 12:35 p.m. and was last updated at 7:50 p.m.