Obama, Putin hold brief face-to-face chat in France

Posted June 06, 2014, at 9:38 p.m.

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — After snubbing the Russian leader earlier in the week, President Barack Obama met briefly with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday for the first face-to-face encounter between the two leaders since the crisis in Ukraine sent their already rocky relationship into a spiral.

The roughly 15-minute chat between the two leaders came at the Chateau de Benouville, the countryside estate where a coterie of foreign leaders, kings and Queen Elizabeth II broke from a day of D-Day ceremonies for a midday meal.

Obama urged Putin to recognize Ukrainian president-elect Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s leader and to cut off arms supplies to pro-Russian separatists.

“If Russia does take this opportunity to recognize and work with the new government in Kiev, President Obama indicated that there could be openings to reduce tensions,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Before the lunch, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought together Putin and Poroshenko for a 15-minute meeting.

French officials have been plotting for weeks to use the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings — a key event helping to end World War Two — to try to break the ice in the most serious European security crisis since the end of the Cold War.

Hollande’s office said Putin and Poroshenko shook hands and agreed that detailed talks on a ceasefire between Kiev government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine would begin within a few days.

Poroshenko, brought to power by pro-Western protests which Putin has termed a coup, was photographed looking unsmiling and earnest as he stood with the Russian leader and Merkel.

“It was a normal, serious exchange between two leaders,” an official in Hollande’s office said.

“This marks tentative progress which he (Hollande) welcomes, particularly given this occasion so symbolic for peace,” the official said, adding they also discussed steps such as Russian recognition of Poroshenko’s election and economic relations.

Putin told traveling reporters he welcomed proposals set out by Poroshenko for ending the conflict. However he declined to say what they were and said Ukraine must halt what he called “punitive” military operations against pro-Russian separatists.

But he added: “I felt the attitude was right as a whole … If this (plan) happens, then it creates conditions for the development of relations in other areas, including the economy.”

A senior French official present at the meeting said they had discussed Russian gas supplies to Ukraine, which Moscow has threatened to cut in a dispute about payment of arrears, as well as key elements of Poroshenko’s inaugural address on Saturday.

“If all goes well, they will speak to each other again on Monday to maintain the contact,” the French official said.

Interfax in Ukraine cited Poroshenko as saying he expected a Russian representative to come to Ukraine to discuss his ideas for a settlement plan. He added that he saw “good chances” of it being implemented.

Hollande had invited Poroshenko to Normandy as his personal guest at the last minute in an effort to break the ice between Moscow and Kiev even as fighting continued in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

The rebels shot down a Ukrainian army plane on Friday and killed a member of the interior ministry’s special forces in the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk, where residents said shelling continued all day.

Kathleen Hennessey of Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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