BRUSSELS, June 5 – Western leaders said they stood united Thursday ahead of their first direct meetings with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Ukraine, with President Barack Obama giving him a month to back down or face more sanctions.
Leaders of the Group of Seven industrialised nations went straight from a two-day summit in Brussels to Paris ahead of Friday’s D-Day commemorations in Normandy where they will rub shoulders with the Kremlin strongman.
“I have no doubt that I’ll see Mr Putin. Should we have the opportunity to talk I’ll deliver the same message as I have throughout this crisis,” Obama told a joint conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron as he left the G7.
“If Russia’s provocations continue, it’s clear from our discussions here the G7 nations are ready to impose additional costs.”
Obama said the summit — from which Russia was excluded after its annexation of Crimea in March — was important to “ensure that we’re in lockstep going forward” on Ukraine.
The US leader said Russia had to recognise Ukraine’s president-elect Petro Poroshenko, withdraw troops from Ukrainian borders and stop backing pro-Moscow rebels who are destabilising eastern Ukraine.
“We will have a chance to see what Mr Putin does over the next two, three, four weeks. If he remains on the current course we’ve already indicated the actions we are prepared to take.”
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said at the close of the summit that the “G7 stands united behind Ukraine, politically and economically.”
Tete-a-tete in France
Cameron is to hold the first tete-a-tete in Paris with Putin, who will also meet French President Francois Hollande on Thursday evening.
On Friday morning the Russian leader meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In a blunt statement issued after a first day of talks Wednesday, the G7 — Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and the United States — warned of tougher sanctions if the conditions set out by Obama were not met.
Putin reached out to the West, saying he was ready to meet Poroshenko, who will also be in Normandy.
“I don’t plan to avoid anyone,” Putin said.
The Russian president also signalled his willingness to sit down with Obama, but scathingly dismissed US claims of military intervention in Ukraine.
“It is his choice, I am ready for dialogue,” Putin said.
Obama this week condemned Russia’s “dark tactics” in Ukraine in a hawkish speech in Poland reminiscent of Cold War times.
In Donetsk, the main city of eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian authorities said they had closed three checkpoints on the border with Russia after nightly assaults by separatists.
The move came as the government vowed to beef up its security presence to counter pro-Russian rebels amid reports of continued fighting in the country’s east.
In Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev accused the G7 of “cynicism” for backing Ukraine’s military operation against pro-Russian insurgents.
“The so-called G7 even talks about the measured actions of the Ukrainian army against its own people,” Medvedev told ministers, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
“This is cynicism without limit.”
But European Council president Herman Van Rompuy dismissed the criticism.
“Everyone has to acknowledge that Ukraine has shown a lot of restraint since the start of the crisis.”
Energy security vital
The G7 talks wrapped up with a focus on the outlook of the global economy — where once again there is no escaping the Ukraine crisis.
“The crisis in Ukraine makes plain that energy security must be at the centre of our collective agenda,” a draft communique said.
The European Union depends on Russia for about 30 percent of its gas supplies, with half of that transiting via Ukraine.
Russia turned off the taps in 2006 and 2009 in previous disputes with Ukraine, causing huge disruption in Europe, and has threatened to do so again if Kiev does not pay its bills.
While the Ukraine crisis dominates the headlines, the broader economic outlook remains a central concern even if the worst of the fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis is easing.
“Supporting jobs and growth remains our top priority,” the G7 draft said.