By Justin Sink - 06/06/14 01:14 PM EDT
President Obama pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize the results of last month's Ukrainian election and halt support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine during a brief, informal conversation on Friday, the White House said.
“President Obama underscored that the successful Ukrainian election provides an opportunity that should be taken,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.
The highly-anticipated face-to-face conversation, on the margins of a luncheon for world leaders, was the first time the two spoke in person since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine earlier this year.
And it came despite what appeared to be an active attempt by both leaders to avoid each other during the D-Day anniversary celebrations in France.
Obama pushed Putin to begin talks with Poroshenko, a pro-European chocolate magnate who won last month's Ukrainian elections — the first contest since Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed former president, fled amid mass protests.
According to the White House, Obama told Putin that Poroshenko was committed “to pursue reforms to ensure that the rights and interests of all Ukrainians are respected, and urged Russia to work immediately with the government in Kiev to reduce tensions.”
Obama also warned that Russia faced additional penalties that would “deepen Russia's isolation” if Putin did not try to work with the government in Kiev — but “indicated there could be openings to reduce tensions” if the Kremlin seized the opportunity to work with Ukraine.
In a gesture certain to encourage U.S. and European leaders, Putin and Poroshenko also chatted briefly on the sidelines of the leaders' luncheon.
The pair discussed the contours of a ceasefire agreement and other steps that could deescalate the crisis, French and American officials said Friday.
“They were able to begin a dialogue on possible de-escalation measures including Moscow recognizing Poroshenko's election,” an aide to French president Francois Hollande told The Telegraph, adding that Putin would plan to dispatch an ambassador to Kiev.
A senior administration official called the Putin-Poroshenko discussion a “positive development” but said it was not a substitute for formally recognizing the election or taking additional de-escalatory steps. But the official also said the situation was not ideal for more extensive negotiations.
“We did not think it was the right time or place or circumstance for there to be a large multilateral meeting with President-elect Poroshenko and President Putin,” the official said.
Putin and Poroshenko discussed the notion of a ceasefire agreement, but did not appear to make progress on specific details. The official said such a deal would be viewed “in the context of steps that both sides would take.”
The possibility of a Putin-Poroshenko meeting was discussed by leaders of the G-7 earlier in the week, and it is thought that French President Francois Hollande raised the idea with Putin during dinner on Thursday night.
It was actually one of two meals attended that evening by Hollande, who dined separately with Obama in order to avoid an uncomfortable overlap. That only fed speculation building throughout the president's weeklong trip to Europe about whether he and Putin would speak.
Earlier Thursday, it appeared as if Putin and Obama were intentionally avoiding one another during a photo session with all dignitaries attending the event.
While Obama jovially greeted other leaders — planting a kiss on both cheeks of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — he and Putin kept their distance.
At one point when the leaders were walking from the photo session toward the building where they would dine, Obama was right behind Putin, but appeared to go out of his way not to acknowledge his presence.
But the administration official said the two finally made time at the end of the meal. They began talking at their table and continue on for about 15 minutes, although the White House wouldn't say who initiated the conversation or whether a third leader brought the pair together.
“It was something they expected, that they’d speak with each other,” the official said.