On Friday, the international community sighed a sliver of relief when President Vladimir Putin decided to call President Barack Obama to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, but it seems the two leaders had different interpretations of the conversation. After then-president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine from civil protesters in late February, the state’s parliament voted to remove him and hold new elections on May 25th of this year.
President Putin and his Russian nation were allies with Mr. Yanukovych and has called the overthrowing of his presidency by the people a “coup.” On March 16th, the Russian speaking majority of Ukraine’s eastern Crimea region voted in a referendum by a 97% margin to rejoin Russia.
Putin then signed a bill into law three short days later effectively annexing the region. The United States and much of Europe does not recognize legitimacy of the annexation. Putin maintains that although the referendum is in a gray area of international law, he held the right to protect the pro-Russian people from the interim Ukrainian government, who he called “fascists.”
President Obama has been in constant support of the uprising in Ukraine, which began late last November, when Mr. Yanukovych turned away from a historic trade deal with the European Union and instead took a hefty $15 billion from Russia. Nearly 800,000 people joined in Independence Square to protest the decision. The demonstrations took the lives of nearly 100 people by the end of February.
After a diplomatic deal with Mr. Yanukovych and the opposition was breached, opposition leaders took control of key government buildings and overtook the government. President Obama and much of the international community supported the opposition and recognize the authority of the new interim government.
Despite serious economic sanctions from both the U.S. and the E.U. Russia continued on the path to annex Crimea from Ukraine. President Obama made it clear these actions would only further isolate Russia diplomatically and economically from the international community. President Putin did not seem phased by these threats, and to the shock of Ukraine, massed ten of thousands of soldiers along Ukraine’s eastern border. Though the Kremlin insists they are there only for routine exercises, many fear a Russian invasion.
That is why on Friday, after multiple invitations from President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, the international community was elated at President Putin’s willingness to speak about the crisis. The initial hope for Ukraine was soon diminished, however, after media reports from both the Kremlin and the White House were publicized, showing two very different interpretations from Putin and Obama.
The White House reported the two speaking “frankly,” which usually indicates a low level of diplomacy, about three main issues. The first topic of interest was a diplomatic solution to the situation in Ukraine, which has been proposed from John Kerry to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. President Obama requested that Russia put down in writing a response to such an invitation, to anchor a feeling of security to the Ukrainian people.
The Kremlin reported President Putin drawing President Obama’s attention to the “continued rampage of extremists.” President Putin has never recognized the interim government of Ukraine, saying Vikotr Yanukovych is still the rightful leader. This led him to the annexation of Crimea, saying the people were in danger from the new government.
The second point addressed, according to the White House, was the upcoming elections to be held in Ukraine. President Obama urged Putin to accept the process which is about to take place and to avoid any further intimidation, like the massing of troops of Ukraine’s eastern border. Though not discussed, the region of Crimea is not at all set in Russian stone. The interim Ukrainian government said it will “never accept” the loss of Crimea.
The Kremlin’s report of the call seemed to somehow completely skip over the point of intimidation and territorial integrity and moved on to say that the two spoke of a global resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. However, it seems Putin and Obama have different interpretations of exactly what that “crisis” is. For President Obama, it is the violation of territory in Ukraine. For President Putin, it is a state run over by unlawful protesters.
The last point, from the White House record, was the request asked of Russia to stop its aggression towards Ukraine. President Obama also again voiced his displeasure, with the backing of the greater part of Europe, over the annexation of Crimea. He asked that President Putin respect the authority of the new government and move forward to de-escalate the situation.
The Kremlin reportedly closed the conversation by bringing attention to the Transnistria region on Ukraine’s western border. President Putin reportedly said that the partly-Russian speaking region who split from Moldova is in a blockade, troubling the everyday lives of their community and economy. He reminded President Obama that Russia “stands for the fair and comprehensive settlement [over] the Transnistria conflict.”
It seems that perhaps the two leaders were on the phone, but not with each other. The disappointing phone call between President Putin and President Obama has left many in the international community wondering what these opposing interpretations mean for Ukraine and the rest of the world.
By Erin P. Friar