- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2014

President Obama urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call Monday to compel pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to lay down their arms and surrender buildings they have seized in 10 cities.

Seeking yet again to calm the situation a day after a Russian jet fighter buzzed a U.S. warship in the Black Sea, Mr. Obama “reiterated the importance of Russia withdrawing its troops from Ukraine’s border in order to defuse tensions,” the White House said.

With their relationship worsening since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month, Mr. Obama told the Russian leader that a diplomatic solution “cannot possibly succeed in an environment of Russian military intimidation on Ukraine’s borders, armed provocation within Ukraine, and escalatory rhetoric by Kremlin officials.”

The Kremlin said the two leaders discussed escalating violence in Ukraine and that Mr. Putin denied fomenting the unrest. The two leaders had not spoken directly in two weeks.

“In response to the president of the United States’ expressed concern about Russia’s supposed meddling in southeastern Ukraine, the president of Russia noted that such speculations are based on inaccurate information,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

Asked about the incident in which the Russian fighter plane made multiple close passes near a U.S. Navy destroyer Saturday, White House press secretary Jay Carney agreed with Pentagon officials that the action was “provocative and unprofessional,” but dismissed a suggestion that the U.S. and Russia were on a collision course toward renewing the Cold War.

“We’re not in a Cold War,” Mr. Carney said. “I think it’s important to remember what the dynamics of the Cold War were. You had two superpowers. You had two economic blocs. You had two military blocs. There aren’t two of any of those things today. Russia is not the Soviet Union.”

The administration did acknowledge that CIA Director John Brennan was in Kiev over the weekend for meetings with officials of the new pro-Western Ukrainian interim government in Kiev. The Obama administration has faced rising criticism at home that it has not provided enough military and intelligence help to Ukraine in the standoff with its much larger neighbor.

After another weekend in which pro-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine pushed for closer ties with Moscow, the Obama administration also did not commit to broader economic sanctions against Russia.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said Monday the U.S. and its allies are “fully prepared” to impose additional sanctions on Russia if it continues to underwrite unrest in  Ukraine, and Mr. Obama spoke Monday with French President Francois Hollande about what the White House called the “worsening” situation. Mr. Lew signed a $1 billion U.S. loan guarantee intended to stabilize Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov on Monday called for the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the east of the country. The armed pro-Russian protesters are demanding more autonomy from the central government and closer ties with Russia.

European Union foreign ministers were meeting in Luxembourg Monday to consider additional sanctions against Russian officials because of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Mr. Obama has vowed broader economic sanctions against Moscow if the Russian incursion continues further into Ukraine.

The administration is sending Vice President Joseph R. Biden to Ukraine next week to emphasize U.S. support for the government in Kiev and for free elections to be held May 25. Mr. Biden will discuss with Ukrainian leaders the actions of the pro-Russian separatists and will consult on the latest steps to enhance Ukraine’s energy security.

Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Russian fighter jet pestered the USS Donald Cook with continuous close fly-bys on Saturday while the destroyer was conducting normal operations in international waters. The Navy tried to communicate with the Russians, but to no avail, Col. Warren said.

“The aircraft did not respond to multiple queries and warnings from the Donald Cook,” he said. “The event ended without incident after approximately 90 minutes. This provocative and unprofessional Russian action is inconsistent with international protocols and previous agreements.”

Pentagon officials said the Russian fighter jet flew within 1,000 yards of the ship at an altitude of about 500 feet.

The jet appeared to be unarmed and never was in danger of coming in contact with the ship, said one U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the encounter. The official also said that a Russian Navy ship, a frigate, has been shadowing the U.S. warship, remaining within visual distance but not close enough to be unsafe.

• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report.

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