Obama Did Not Press Putin on Recent Military Provocations

Phone call limited to Ukraine, Syria

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama in 2015 / AP

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President Obama did not raise Russian military provocations against a Navy warship and Air Force intelligence jet last week during a Monday phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House disclosed Monday.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president had "an intense discussion" by telephone with Putin, but not about two dangerous aerial actions by Russian warplanes.

The conversation instead was limited to Russian activities in Ukraine, where Moscow has militarily annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and the conflict in Syria.

"We have ample opportunities to express our concerns about these kinds of provocative actions to the Russians and it did not necessitate a presidential level conversation," Earnest told reporters at the White House.

Two Russian Su-24 jets buzzed the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea on April 14, flying dangerously close to the ship as it was conducting operations.

Two days later, a Russian Su-27 jet flew within 50 feet of an RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft over the Baltic Sea and executed a barrel roll over the top of the jet in what the U.S. European Command said was an unsafe action that threatened the safety of the aircraft in international airspace.

Earnest was asked if the president raised the aerial provocations and said: "I asked this specific question and that did not come up in the call between the two presidents."

The spokesman said that while such activities are destabilizing and a "source of some concern," the incidents were "not particularly unusual."

"And there is an already well-established channel for expressing our concerns about those kinds of incidents from the U.S. military attache in Moscow to his Russian military counterpart," Earnest said. "Those concerns were raised at that level and were not escalated beyond that."

Earnest said the RC-135 aerial encounter, first reported by the Free Beacon on Saturday, was not unprecedented.

"This is a good illustration of just how these kinds of incidents, while provocative and concerning, are not particularly unusual," he said. "And I do not know at this point whether or not specific concerns have been raised about the incident that you just referenced, but is a good illustration that these kinds of actions are not particularly [unusual]."

Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that the buzzing of the Cook could have triggered a shoot out if the ship had taken action against the Russian jets.

Earnest said Kerry was making the point that "it’s certainly why we encourage the Russians to not engage in those kinds of activities, abiding by generally accepted international norms, particularly when operating in either international waters or in international airspace is important."

The Pentagon has said the Russian aerial encounter with the Cook was unusual, as past encounters did not come as close.

Any small error by the pilots in either case would have caused a collision with the destroyer or RC-135 that could have cost lives, defense officials said.

On Ukraine, Earnest said Obama made "a forceful case" that Putin should abide by the so-called Minsk agreement of 2014 to halt Russian military support for separatists in the Ukraine.

"The United States continues to believe and President Obama continues to make a forceful case that Russia needs to abide by their commitments, and by doing so, they can begin to relieve some of the isolation they have sustained as a result interfering in the sovereign activities of their neighbors in Ukraine," Earnest said.

The Syria discussion between the two leaders concerned whether the halt in fighting is being honored.

"There continues to be concern about all of the parties living up to the commitments that they made in the context of the cessation of hostilities," Earnest said.

Obama sought to convince Putin that the Russian leader "should use his influence with the [Bashar] Assad regime [in Syria] to live up to the commitments that they've made in the context of the cessation of hostilities," he said.

"Unfortunately, we've seen that the cessation of hostilities continues to be fragile and increasingly threatened due to continued violations by the regime," Earnest said, adding that "I think you could accurately describe this as an intense conversation."

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