Accessibility links

Breaking News

One Phone Call, Two Perspectives: A Conversation Between Putin And Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine.
U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine.
A few decades from now, the U.S. National Archives will release tapes of the recent phone calls between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Until then, all we have to go by are the official statements from the White House and the Kremlin on the March 16 call between Putin and Obama. Taking a look at the two readouts side-by-side provides a small glimpse -- less into what the two presidents discussed, but more into the heated information war between Moscow and Washington.

The Lede:

The White House leads with Obama condemning Moscow's actions in Crimea.

"President Obama emphasized that the Crimean 'referendum,' which violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention, would never be recognized by the United States and the international community."

The Kremlin readout starts by emphasizing Putin's displeasure with events in Kyiv.

"Mr Putin noted that the current authorities in Kyiv have so far failed to demonstrate the ability and desire to rein in the ultranationalist and radical groups that are destabilizing the situation in the country and terrorizing ordinary people, including the Russian-speaking population and Russia’s compatriots."

Both sides begin by highlighting the location that they view as the source of injustice. For Washington, this is Crimea, which in a whirlwind three weeks has essentially been taken over by Moscow -- in violation of international law, according to Western leaders.

For Russia, it is Kyiv and the east, where right-wing groups, with the "connivance" of the new government, are supposedly causing terror directed at the Russian-speaking minority (there is no evidence for this claim).

On the referendum:

The White House says sanctions are coming as a result of the March 16 vote.

"He emphasized that Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions."

The Kremlin says the referendum is a legal expression of "self-determination."

"Regarding the March 16 referendum in Crimea, Mr Putin said that the decision to hold the referendum was in line with international law and the UN Charter, and was also in line with the precedent set by Kosovo. The referendum was organized in such a way as to guarantee Crimea’s population the possibility to freely express their will and exercise their right to self-determination."

The West had been threatening to impose sanctions for weeks if Crimea followed through on its referendum in support of union with Russia. And less than 24 hours after 97 percent of participants in the disputed vote chose Moscow, the EU announced sanctions against 21 officials from Ukraine and Russia. The United States imposed sanctions against seven Russians and four Ukrainians, including a Russian deputy prime minister, two presidential aides, two pro-Russian Crimean separatist leaders, and ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

A 1994 deal, in which Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in exchange for a guarantee that its territorial integrity would be respected, included Russia as a signatory. But Russia has been poking Washington repeatedly with its claim that the U.S. recognition of Kosovo independence in 2008 set a new precedent for self-determination. (We make the case here, that the two movements are, in fact, very different.)

International Monitors:

The White House wants monitors now.

"He asked that Russia support the immediate deployment of international monitors to help prevent acts of violence by any groups."

The Kremlin is willing to consider a monitoring mission -- with caveats.

"In this context, the two presidents discussed the possibility of sending an OSCE mission to monitor the situation in Ukraine. Mr Putin said that this mission, if it goes ahead, should cover all parts of Ukraine."

In early March, pro-Russian gunmen repeatedly blocked military observers from the 57-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from entering Crimea (video). They had come at the invitation of Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who also has called for monitors in Ukraine's south and east, where several separatist protests have taken place.

Putin's response to the idea is a subtle dig at the government in Kyiv, which he still argues is illegitimate. Although unrest has only been reported in the east and south since Ukraine's new government took power in late February, by suggesting that monitors should be everywhere, Putin is implying that the entire country essentially exists in a power vacuum.


The White House condemns Russia's military presence in Ukraine.

"President Obama reiterated that a diplomatic resolution cannot be achieved while Russian military forces continue their incursions into Ukrainian territory and that the large-scale Russian military exercises on Ukraine’s borders only exacerbate the tension."

Although thousands of Russian soldiers wearing uniforms without insignia are currently in Crimea and in at least one village in mainland Ukraine, the Kremlin has not acknowledged their presence and therefore makes no mention of them in its statement.

But as with previous statements, the Kremlin indirectly warns that Russia's hand could be "forced" into further military action to stop the "terrorizing" of the Russian-speaking population. (Again, there is no evidence that the Russian-speaking population is under threat.)

The Paralympics

The closing ceremony of the Paralympic games in Sochi took place on March 16 and the Kremlin says Obama took note.

"Mr Obama congratulated Mr. Putin on the success of the Paralympic Games and asked Mr Putin to pass on his greetings to the athletes."

The White House statement, however, makes no mention of the games, despite the opportunity to relish in the U.S. paralympic hockey team's gold-medal victory over Russia.

-- Glenn Kates