Ukraine crisis: Vladimir Putin is not 'unhinged', White House says
President Barack Obama believes a deal can be struck with Russian leader to end invasion of Crimea
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama does not see Vladimir Putin as "unhinged" and believes the Russian leader can be coaxed into a deal to withdraw troops and end the Ukrainian crisis, the White House said last night.
Hours after Mr Putin made a combative appearance in Moscow where he denied Russian troops were in Crimea but left open the possibility of war with Ukraine, the US said it still believed it was possible to reach a compromise with the Russian president.
This morning, however, Russian forces seized two Ukrainian missile defence battalions in the Crimea region on Wednesday, Interfax news agency quoted a military source as saying.
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry was unable immediately to confirm on the report, which quoted the source saying: "We now expect the arrival of Russian missile specialists and pro-Russian activists who will have to persuade the Ukrainian military personnel to carry out joint combat duties."
Earlier, the US President said that he was looking to Angela Merkel to help mediate a deal, referred to as an "off-ramp" by the US, that would allow Mr Putin to withdraw troops without losing face.
"We may be able to deescalate over the next several days and weeks, but it’s a serious situation and we’re spending a lot of time on it," Mr Obama said Tuesday.
Mr Obama and the German chancellor spoke for more than an hour on Tuesday about a diplomatic solution to end the most serious confrontation with Russia in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The terms of the offer would allow Russia to keep 11,000 troops in Crimea as long as they returned to their barracks, a White House official said.
International monitors would be sent to Ukraine to reassure the Kremlin that ethnic Russians were not being persecuted and fresh elections would be held in May.
Mrs Merkel, who has spoken repeatedly to Mr Putin, reportedly said the Russian president was "in another world", according to the New York Times.
In a briefing at the White House, a senior US official disputed the claim that Mr Putin had taken leave of his senses, according to CNN, saying he appeared to be acting out of domestic political considerations.
The official said that in a 90-minute phone call on Saturday Mr Obama and Mr Putin were unable to agree on even basic facts about the situation in Ukraine.
Mr Putin insisted that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine were in danger following the collapse of the pro-Russian government last month, despite no evidence that is the case.
In a press conference in Moscow today, Mr Putin repeated claims that Russians in Ukraine were threatened by "uncontrolled crime" and mob rule, which justified military intervention.
"We retain the right to use all available means to protect those people," Mr Putin said. "We believe this would be absolutely legitimate. This is our last resort."
Mr Obama publicly disputed the Russian leaders's justifications, saying: "I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody."
Despite the fundamental disagreement over conditions on the ground, US officials said Mr Obama was open to further direct dialogue with Mr Putin.
The clash between the two leaders came as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, visited Kiev with an offer of $1 billion (£600 million) in loan guarantees to help stabilise the new government.
America's top diplomat offered a further gesture of support by visiting a shrine to the 80 protesters killed during the uprising that overthrew the pro-Russian administration last month.
“It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve,” Mr Kerry said. “That is not 21st-century, G8, major nation behaviour.”
The US said Mr Obama would not attend the G8 summit in Sochi in June unless the situation in Ukraine had been resolved.
The White House is still examining what sanctions could be imposed on Russia or individual Russian officials in response to the crisis in Ukraine
But there remains deep unease in Washington about imposing sanctions without the backing of European nations, whose economies are more closely entwined with Russia's.
The US believes both Britain, a major destination for Russian wealth, and Germany, an importer of Russia's natural gas, are important for effective sanctions.
"Right now the Europeans are not where we need them to be," said Chris Murphy, chair of the Senate's Europe subcommittee. "It may take a few days, it may take a week before they get to the point where they are ready to tell Putin: get your troops out of there."
Raf Sanchez, Telegraph.co.uk