Thursday 23 January 2020

Russian call for Ukraine referendum illegitimate – White House

Moscow’s ambassador to the US earlier revealed that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had discussed the possibility.

Mr Putin was said to have discussed the possibility with Mr Trump (AP)
Mr Putin was said to have discussed the possibility with Mr Trump (AP)

By Zeke Miller, Ken Thomas and Lisa Mascaro

The White House said it “is not considering supporting” a Vladimir-Putin-backed call for a referendum in eastern Ukraine in the aftermath of US president Donald Trump’s meeting with the Russian leader.

Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, revealed that the two leaders had discussed the possibility of a referendum in separatist-leaning eastern Ukraine during their Helsinki summit.

However, US National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said agreements between Russia and the Ukrainian government for resolving the conflict in the Donbas region “do not include any option for referendum”.

He added that any effort to organise a “so-called referendum” would have “no legitimacy”.

The White House announcement came as it laid out the agenda for an autumn summit between Mr Trump and Mr Putin in Washington that would focus on national security.

Moscow signalled its openness to a second formal meeting between the two leaders, as Mr Trump continued to face criticism over his first session with his Russian counterpart.

A White House official said the next Trump-Putin meeting would address national security concerns discussed in Helsinki, including Russian meddling. The official did not specify if that meant Russia’s interference in US elections.

The official said the talks would also cover nuclear proliferation, North Korea, Iran and Syria.

Mr Trump asked US National Security Adviser John Bolton to invite Mr Putin to Washington in the fall to follow up on issues they discussed this week in Helsinki, Finland, the official said.

A White House meeting would be a dramatic extension of legitimacy to the Russian leader, who has long been isolated by the West for activities in Ukraine, Syria and beyond, and is believed to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election that sent Mr Trump to the presidency.

No Russian leader has visited the White House in nearly a decade.

The announcement of a second summit comes as US officials remained silent on what, if anything, the two leaders agreed to in Helsinki during their more than two-hour one-on-one meeting, in which only translators were present.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats revealed on Thursday he has yet to be briefed on the private session.

The Russian government has proven to be more forthcoming.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Mr Antonov said: “This issue (of a referendum) was discussed,” adding that Putin made “concrete proposals” to Mr Trump on solutions for the four-year, Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 people.

The move may be seen as an effort to side-step European peace efforts for Ukraine and increase the pressure on the Ukrainian government in its protracted conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region.

Mr Trump tweeted on Thursday that he looked forward a “second meeting” with Mr Putin and defended his performance at Monday’s summit, in which the two leaders conferred on a range of issues including terrorism, Israeli security, nuclear proliferation and North Korea.

“There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems … but they can ALL be solved!” Mr Trump tweeted.

In Moscow, Mr Antonov said it is important to “deal with the results” of their first summit before jumping into a new one. But he said: “Russia was always open to such proposals. We are ready for discussions on this subject.”

News of Mr Trump’s invitation appeared to catch even the president’s top intelligence official by surprise.

“Say that again?” Mr Coats responded, when informed of the invitation during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

“OK,” he continued, pausing for a deep breath. “That’s going to be special.”

Mr Trump and Mr Putin held a historic summit this week (AP)

The announcement came as the White House sought to clean up days of confounding post-summit Trump statements on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Mr Trump’s public doubting of Russia’s responsibility in a joint news conference with Mr Putin provoked withering criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats and forced the president to make a rare public admission of error.

Then on Thursday, the White House said Mr Trump “disagrees” with Mr Putin’s offer to allow US questioning of 12 Russians who have been indicted for election interference in exchange for Russian interviews with the former US ambassador to Russia and other Americans the Kremlin accuses of unspecified crimes. Mr Trump had initially described the idea as an “incredible offer”.

Mixed messages from Trump have increased worries in US congress that the White House is not taking seriously the threat that senior officials say Russia now poses to the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections.

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