German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko, left, talk as they take part in the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Benouville in Normandy, France. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
Ouistreham, France — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday spoke face-to-face with Ukraine’s incoming president about ending the violence in the former Soviet state, a diplomatic turning point that played out along the Normandy beaches where the Allies battled for Europe’s peace 70 years earlier.
The meeting, which lasted some 15 minutes, came on the same day that Putin spoke with President Barack Obama, who had been keeping the Russian leader at arm’s length over the Ukrainian crisis that has rekindled Cold War-era tensions.
Speaking after the meeting with Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko — who is to be sworn for office on Saturday — Putin called for an immediate ceasefire in eastern Ukraine ahead of any further talks, and said he expected Poroshenko to show “state wisdom” and “good will.” Putin also said that Moscow is ready for constructive discussion with Ukraine on settling its gas debt to Russia.
“I can only welcome Mr. Poroshenko’s position that the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine must be stopped immediately,” Putin told reporters in Normandy.
The Russian president said he liked Poroshenko’s approach, but added that he will be waiting for the Ukrainian leader to deliver it in detail to the nation.
“If it continues like that then conditions will be created for developing our relations in other areas as well,” he added.
French President Francois Hollande said Putin and Poroshenko also discussed how Russia could recognize the Ukrainian elections as well as measures to de-escalate the fighting in Ukraine’s east.
“It didn’t last a long time but long enough for the message to be passed on,” Hollande told the French network TF1.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin and Poroshenko also “confirmed that there is no alternative to settling the situation by peaceful political means.”
Frozen out of G-7 talks Thursday in Brussels, Putin appeared to be moving incrementally back into the fold of the West following his first direct talks with the man elected to lead Ukraine after the previous pro-Kremlin president was ousted in what Putin said was a coup.
Russia, which had recalled its ambassador from Ukraine, said he will return to Kiev to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration on Saturday. That appeared to be a recognition of Ukraine’s election, Hollande said.
Outside the building where world leaders met for lunch, reporters saw another animated conversation between Putin and Poroshenko lasting about a minute. That conversation also included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who at a much more public commemoration at Sword Beach appeared to shuttle between the men.
A senior U.S. administration official, who was not authorized to discuss the meeting on the record, said the possibility of arranging a meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders gained traction at Thursday’s G-7 meeting with the objective for Russia to hear the same message from “all of the allies.”
The official said Russia also bore responsibilities in any cease-fire.
“It would have to be mutual. It’s not on one party to have a ceasefire. It takes not just Ukraine, but also Russia,” the official said.
In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials say more than 200 people have died — a figure which can’t be independently confirmed — in fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels. Insurgents in eastern Ukraine declared their regions independent and have asked to join Russia, but the Kremlin has ignored their appeal.
Putin has denied claims by Ukraine and the West that Russia has fomented the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, and on Friday he insisted that Poroshenko needs to speak directly to the representatives of the east. He didn’t say if Moscow was prepared to take any action to persuade pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine to stop fighting Ukraine’s government troops.
“It’s not Russia and Ukraine that need to be parties to the negotiations, as Russia isn’t a party to the conflict,” he said.
Candy magnate Poroshenko has promised a comprehensive plan to put an end to the hostilities in the east as soon as he assumes office.
Putin held his first face-to-face meetings with Western leaders in France this week since pro-European protesters pushed out Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president in February, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, and the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions in response. He even met informally with U.S. President Barack Obama.
In the private conversation with Merkel, German government spokesman Christiane Wirtz said that the German chancellor “took the opportunity to remind Russia again of its great responsibility” and said that following the presidential election in Ukraine, the priority needs to be a “stabilization of the situation, in particular in eastern Ukraine.”
Obama and Western allies opened a pathway for Russia to ease tensions in Ukraine on Thursday but pointedly warned Moscow it could face new sanctions within weeks if Putin fails to go along. The leaders said the Russian president could avoid tougher penalties in part by recognizing the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government and ending support for an insurgency in eastern cities that is widely believed to be backed by the Kremlin.
There was no mention of rolling back Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which precipitated the European crisis.
Obama, who said he has a “businesslike” relationship with Putin, expressed hope that the Russian leader is “moving in a new direction” on Ukraine since he didn’t immediately denounce Poroshenko’s election on May 25. “But I think we have to see what he does and not what he says,” Obama said.
The 70th anniversary of D-Day — a time when the U.S., Britain and Russia were allied against Germany — marked the best opportunity for the leaders to meet since the Ukraine crisis erupted. Merkel’s key role appeared to endure through the introduction of the Sword Beach ceremony in Ouistreham, in an extraordinarily symbolic sign of Germany’s changed role in Europe.
In Ukraine, at least 15 pro-Russian rebels were killed Thursday in clashes with government troops at a border crossing with Russia, an aide to the Ukrainian interior minister said.
Speaking on a television show, Anton Herashchenko said armed men came from Russia in trucks and an infantry vehicle and tried to cross the border at the village of Marynivka in eastern Ukraine, and were supported by 100 rebels from the Ukrainian side. His report of casualties could not be confirmed independently.
Following the clash, Ukraine’s government ordered the closing of parts of the border with Russia, including the Marynivka crossing, in an attempt to prevent armed men from infiltrating into its territory. The Russian Foreign Ministry said it was “outraged” by this move.