Absent Russia dominates G-7 talks

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Discussion at Group of Seven meetings Thursday in Brussels was dominated by the former member absent for the first time in 17 years.

The meeting of heads of state from the world’s top economies had originally been scheduled for Sochi, Russia, but earlier this year, the G-7 moved to expel Russia over its aggression in Crimea.

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While Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally missing, talks largely centered on the question of how to compel the Russian leader to de-escalate an increasingly bloody conflict in Ukraine.

In a statement issued late Wednesday night, G-7 leaders declared they stood “ready to intensify targeted sanctions and to implement significant additional restrictive measures to impose further costs on Russia should events so require.”

The leaders also urged the Kremlin to recognize the results of Ukraine’s recent presidential election, complete the withdrawal of its military forces along the border, and call on separatists in eastern and southern regions of the country to put down their arms.

“We are united in condemning the Russian Federation’s continuing violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the leaders said.

"We'll have to evaluate going forward, what are the triggers for different types of sanctions," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday. "That would be reviewing whether or not Russia is continuing to destabilize eastern Ukraine and whether or not Russia is continuing to support separatist groups.”

At least three top G-7 leaders will meet with Putin in the coming days in a bid to reinforce that message.

French President François Hollande will dine with Putin Thursday evening in Paris. He’s also made separate plans to dine with President Obama — meaning the French leader will be dashing between two separate meals.

White House officials insist they’re not concerned Hollande’s meeting with Putin undermines his exclusion from the G-8.

“The question is not whether they’re meeting; the question is what people are saying in those meetings,” Rhodes said. “And our belief is that there needs to be a unified message that supports the right of the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions, that makes clear to Russia that there will be a cost if they do not take this opportunity to reduce tensions, and, frankly, also lifts up the fact that we have a moment of opportunity here, that you always look for opportunities in crisis situations like this for there to be a change in direction.”

But the meeting comes as France has signaled its intention to move forward with the delivery of two warships to Russia. The U.S. has complained that doing so is inappropriate, considering the incursion into Ukraine.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is also slated to hold bilateral talks with Putin on Thursday, following an individual meeting and joint press conference with Obama.

Downing Street aides say Cameron will urge Putin to recognize the Ukranian election results and meet with Ukranian President-elect Petro Poroshenko.

On Friday, Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are expected to meet on the sidelines of the celebration marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. It’s during that event that Obama and Putin are expected to interact face-to-face for the first time since the annexation of Crimea.

White House aides insisted there were no plans for a formal meeting between the two leaders in France.

“We have no plans to meet with President Putin, although, as we’ve said, obviously we’ll be in the same venue as him at the lunch and at the ceremony in Normandy,” Rhodes said. “So there will certainly be the opportunity for leaders to interact in that context.”

Earlier this week, Obama said he would tell Putin he had a “hard choice to make” if the pair had a chance to speak in Normandy. Obama said he would ask Putin to get pro-Russian separatists within Ukraine to “stand down,” meet with Poroshenko and recognize that the Ukranian election results.

"If, in fact, we can see some responsible behavior by the Russians over the next several months, then I think it is possible for us to try to rebuild some of the trust that’s been shattered during this past year," Obama said.