President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin discussed a possible referendum in eastern Ukraine during their private powwow in Helsinki, Russia’s ambassador to the US said Friday.
Ambassador Anatoly Antonov revealed the leaders’ discussions during their Monday summit amid questions in the US about what agreements they reached behind closed doors.
“This issue (of a referendum) was discussed,” Antonov said, adding without specifics that Putin made “concrete proposals” to Trump on solutions for the four-year Ukraine conflict, which has killed over 10,000 people.
The move may be considered an effort to sidestep European peace efforts for Ukraine and increase pressure on the Ukrainian government in its conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region.
Trump has tweeted that he and Putin discussed Ukraine, but has not mentioned a referendum or divulged details.
The US and Russia have been on opposing sides of the conflict in Ukraine, unleashed after a popular uprising against a pro-Russian president and Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Ukrainian and European leaders did not immediately comment Friday, but were not expected to support a referendum in the Donbass, where pro-Russian separatists hold sway.
They have been committed to a 2015 peace agreement signed in the Belarusian capital of Minsk that has helped ease the fighting but failed to find a lasting political solution.
Trump and Putin have been cozying up at a time when American ties to Europe are fraying, and both presidents are critical of the European Union and NATO.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back Friday at Trump’s questioning of NATO’s central principle of collective defense.
Antonov called Monday’s summit in Finland a “key event” in international politics and shrugged off suggestions that the two men reached any “secret deals.”
The ambassador insisted that diplomatic talks should remain discreet in order to be effective, but gave a few details of the leaders’ discussions on arms control and said the summit made progress on US-Russian cooperation on Syria’s future.
He also said Moscow is prerpared to discuss a possible visit by Putin to Washington after a surprise invitation from Trump.
Antonov said it’s important to “deal with the results” of their first sit-down before jumping too fast into a new one, but that “Russia was always open to such proposals. We are ready for discussions on this subject.”
The Kremlin hasn’t responded yet to the proposal Trump made Thursday.
Antonov also denounced “anti-Russian anger” in the United States and the “severity” of the American criticism of Trump’s performance at the summit.
He reiterated denials of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — interrupting a questioner to say: “We didn’t interfere!”
Antonov also repeated denials of Russian involvement in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain.
Meanwhile, Antonov also pushed for the release of gun rights activist Maria Butina, who is accused of being a covert agent in the US, calling her arrest a “farce.”
US federal prosecutors have accused Butina of being a Russian agent working to infiltrate American political organizations, including the National Rifle Association, before and after Trump’s election.
Butina, 29, denies wrongdoing, and the Russian Foreign Ministry started an online campaign for her release.
With Post wires
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