As the tensions between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists escalated into violence that killed three militants and wounded 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama are engaged in a public relations battle that has them unable to agree on even the content of a simple telephone conversation, according to a characterization by the New York Times.
The clash in eastern Ukraine was prompted by three separate incursions by the pro-Russian militants, armed with automatic weapons, according to acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, who spoke Thursday morning at parliament in Kiev.
“A mob of 300 militants, wielding guns, molotov cocktails and homemade explosives, attacked the Ukrainian military outpost in the city overnight,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement.
Avakov said the attack was met by the National Guard and police in Mariupol, a southeastern city on the Sea of Azov and that the Ukrainian forces opened fire only after being attacked and firing warning shots in the air.
“Following further warnings, they executed ‘shoot to kill’ instructions in compliance with their charter, after they were attacked once again,” Avakov said.
But Putin accused the Ukrainian government of committing “a serious crime” by using the military to quell unrest and didn’t rule out the possibility of sending in Russian troops.
Putin told reporters that the situation in the east—where pro-Russian militants have seized control of 10 cities—could only be resolved through dialogue. Kiev officials are scheduled to begin talks today in Geneva with Moscow and envoys from the U.S. and European Union in Geneva
Putin pointed out that the Russian parliament had given him the authority in early March to use force in Ukraine if needed.
“But I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right, and that through political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve the most acute problems in Ukraine today,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
After Putin had a phone call earlier this week with Obama, the Times said the two administrations issued summaries of the call that sounded like they were of different conversations. It was clear that the summaries were intended for vastly different audiences — Putin was showing the Russian public his toughness with the Americans, while Obama was trying to hold together a coalition of Europeans allies leery about taking on Putin.
The White House summary gave the impression that Obama delivered a finger-wagging lecture to Putin, with the American president expressing “grave concern” over Russia’s support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, demanding that they lay down their arms, instructing Putin to use his influence to make them do so and warning him to withdraw Russian troops massing at the border, according to the Times.
“Written readouts are normally pro forma and calorie free; these are anything but,” P. J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, told the Times. “Normal diplomatic practice is to gloss over disagreements in public and try to solve them behind closed doors. In this case, it’s ugly, but no one is reaching for the lipstick.”
According to Crowley, a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at George Washington University, the widely divergent readouts showed how little rapport there is between Obama and Putin, and how differently the Americans and Russians see what is happening in Ukraine.
“Both sides, at least for the moment, see political advantages in standing up to one another,” Crowley said. “The ingredients of a diplomatic solution are still there, so at some point the tone will change, but we’re clearly not yet at that point.”