In their first meeting since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin argued Monday over how to resolve the Syrian civil war without agreeing on the way forward.
They especially disagreed over the role of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who Obama described earlier as “a tyrant” and Putin believes is a bulwark against Islamic State militants in Syria. Their private meeting came after they very publicly clashed over Syria and Ukraine in their speeches to to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
After their 95-minute meeting ended, Putin told reporters he would not rule out joining the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, but would not send ground troops into combat. He said any Russian action will be in accordance with international law.
He described the talks as “very constructive, business-like and frank.”
During his news conference broadcast by the Russian news site RT, Putin claimed the U.S.-led airstrikes violate the U.N. Charter because Syria didn’t ask for them, and the U.N. Security Council has not approved the action.
According to a White House official who briefed reporters about the meeting, the two leaders spent the first half discussing Ukraine and the second half on Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the private meeting publicly.
Obama reiterated U.S. support for the sovereignty of Ukraine and urged enacting the cease-fire signed in February in Minsk, Belarus, that has yet to be fully implemented. Fighting in Ukraine has recently abated for nearly a month.
On Syria, the two sides fundamentally disagreed on the role that President Bashar Assad will play in resolving the civil war there. The U.S. sees Assad as continuing to fan the flames of the sectarian conflict there, the official said.
Earlier, the two leaders opened the debate of the 70th U.N. General Assembly by trading barbs over Ukraine, which Obama had said was his priority for Monday night’s meeting.
The United States accuses Russia of sending its military and heavy weapons to help pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine seize territory and battle Ukrainian government forces, which Russia denies. According to the U.N., more than 8,000 people have died in the conflict that started in April 2014 after Russia seized and annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
“We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated,” Obama told the General Assembly.
If that can happen without consequences in Ukraine, “it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” Obama said. “That’s the basis of the sanctions that the United States and our partners impose on Russia.”
Putin told the world leaders that “some of our colleagues” continue to expand NATO, the U.S.-led North Atlantic defense alliance, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union that it was created to guard against.
And in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that shares a 1,400-mile border with Russia, “discontent with leadership was exploited” by the same Western motivation, he said.
The interests of people in separatist-held eastern Ukraine need to be respected, Putin said.
Putin also complained about unilateral sanctions, which he said “have become commonplace.”
“The sanctions serve as a means to eliminate competitors. It seems the rules of the road have been undermined,” he said.