President Barack Obama called on Russia on Friday to pull back tens of thousands of troops massed along its border with Ukraine, as U.S. officials said they have grown increasingly concerned that the size and makeup of the force could portend a new Russian attempt to annex swaths of its neighbor.
In recent days, Russia has deployed supporting units in addition to combat forces to border areas and has taken steps to conceal some of the contingents, U.S. officials said.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, U.S. officials added that they have seen no evidence to corroborate Russia’s assurances that the soldiers are there solely to conduct training exercises.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, Obama urged Russia to avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine.
Putin called Obama on Friday to discuss how to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, the White House announced. Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing to a U.S. proposal presented to the Russians this week, and the presidents agreed that Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would meet to discuss next steps, the White House said.
A Kremlin account of the call focused less on the prospects for diplomacy and more about stabilizing a situation Moscow blamed on extremists.
Putin drew Barack Obama’s attention to continued rampage of extremists who are committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies in various regions and in Kiev with impunity, according to the Kremlin summary.
The Russian president said Russia was interested in examining possible steps the global community can take to help stabilize the situation.
The United States and other Western governments have rejected repeated charges by Moscow that ethnic Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine are under threat, and U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said violent incidents are often directed by Russia’s secret services.