BENOUVILLE, France - President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Friday on the sidelines of a lunch for world leaders attending D-Day commemoration ceremonies, marking their first face-to-face conversation since the crisis in Ukraine erupted.
The White House said the conversation was informal and lasted 15 minutes inside a chateau where the leaders ate lunch. "It was something that they expected, that they'd speak with each other," a senior administration official told reporters during the flight back to Paris.
As leaders posed outside the building for a group photo before the lunch, Obama and Putin appeared to be avoiding each other deliberately. But once inside, they made time for their first such exchange since Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. As the crisis as developed, Obama and Putin have spoken by phone, but haven't met in person.
President Obama underscored that the successful Ukrainian election provides an opportunity that should be taken," Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said in a statement. "President Obama made clear that de-escalation depends upon Russia recognizing President-elect Poroshenko as the legitimate leader of Ukraine, ceasing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, and stopping the provision of arms and materiel across the border.
"President Obama made clear that a failure to take these steps would only deepen Russia's isolation," Rhodes continued. "If Russia does take this opportunity to recognize and work with the new government in Kiev, President Obama indicated that there could be openings to reduce tensions."
(Video above was posted on Vine by the French government)
Obama told reporters Thursday that if and Putin ended up speaking, he would tell the Russian leader that he has a new path to engage with Ukraine through President-elect Petro Poroshenko, who is scheduled to take office Saturday.
"If he does not, if he continues a strategy of undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine, then we have no choice but to respond" with more sanctions, Obama said.
A senior administration official said the election provided a window of opportunity that "you're not going to get again."
"It provided for a new basis of legitimacy for the government. It provides a new interlocutor" for Putin, the official explained. "There is a window open here."
The official said Mr. Obama is returning to Washington "more optimistic" than when he left on his trip.
Poroshenko and Putin met briefly for about 15 minutes on the sidelines of the commemoration events, where they discussed the economic impacts of the crisis in Ukraine.
The two leaders discussed the possibility of a ceasefire, but an administration official stressed any agreement must be a two-way street, with Russia agreeing to work to stop the violence. "A ceasefire was discussed," the official said. "We saw that in the context of steps that both sides would take."
Obama, who said he has a "businesslike" relationship with Putin, expressed hope that the Russian leader is "moving in a new direction" on Ukraine since he didn't immediately denounce Poroshenko's election on May 25. "But I think we have to see what he does and not what he says," Obama said.
Friday's exchange came during a lunch hosted by French President Francois Hollande in Benouville. Obama and Putin were both in France, as were the other world figures, for the 70th anniversary of Allied troops storming the beaches at Normandy.