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Putin, Obama discuss solution to Ukraine crisis

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss a diplomatic solution to the Ukrainian crisis, while Ukraine's fugitive leader urged a nationwide referendum that would serve Moscow's purpose of turning its neighbor into a loosely knit federation.

The statement from Viktor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who fled to Russia last month after three months of protests, raised the threat of more unrest in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern provinces, where many resent the new Ukrainian government.

Also Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin the Ukrainian military withdrawal from Crimea was complete. Ukrainian soldiers were seen carrying duffel bags and flags as they shipped out of the Black Sea peninsula that Russia has annexed.

While Yanukovych has practically no leverage in Ukraine, his statement clearly reflected the Kremlin's focus on supporting separatist sentiments in eastern Ukraine.

The White House said that Putin called Obama Friday to discuss a U.S. proposal for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry presented to Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov earlier this week. Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss the next steps.

"President Obama noted that the Ukrainian government continues to take a restrained and de-escalatory approach to the crisis and is moving ahead with constitutional reform and democratic elections, and urged Russia to support this process and avoid further provocations, including the buildup of forces on its border with Ukraine," the White House said in a statement.

A White House official, who wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity, said that Obama and Putin spoke for an hour. He said the plan was the old off-ramp roadmap that had been drafted before Russia annexed Crimea last week.

The Kremlin said in its account of the conversation that Putin talked about action by extremists in Ukraine and suggested "possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation" in Ukraine. It added that Putin also pointed at an "effective blockade" of Moldova's separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has troops. Russia and the local authorities have complained of Ukraine's recent moves to limit travel across the border of the region on Ukraine's southern border. There were fears in Ukraine that Russia could use its forces in Trans-Dniester to invade.

Deep divisions between Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern regions, where many favor close ties with Moscow, and the Ukrainian-speaking west, where most want to integrate into Europe, continue to fuel tensions.

The Crimean Peninsula, where ethnic Russians are a majority, voted this month to secede from Ukraine before Russia formally annexed it, a move that Western countries have denounced as illegitimate. Talk percolates of similar votes in other Ukrainian regions with large Russian populations, although none has been scheduled.

Russia has pushed strongly for federalizing Ukraine — giving its regions more autonomy — but Ukraine's interim authorities in Kiev have rejected such a move. The one vote that has been scheduled is a presidential election on May 25.

"Only an all-Ukrainian referendum, not the early presidential elections, could to a large extent stabilize the political situation and preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," Yanukovych said in a statement carried by the ITAR-Tass news agency.

He didn't specify what the vote should ask or when it should be held.

Russia's state RIA-Novosti news agency quoted Alexei Mukhin, a Kremlin-connected political analyst, as saying while a nationwide referendum would be difficult to organize in each of Ukraine's provinces, the country's southeastern regions could follow Yanukovych's advice.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the presentation ceremony of the top military brass in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28.

(AP)

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