Obama discusses Ukraine with leaders of Britain, Italy, France, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia

Associated Press

KEY LARGO, Florida — Vacationing in Florida, President Barack Obama continued his telephone consultations with world leaders on Ukraine, speaking one on one Saturday with the leaders of three European powers and collectively with the heads of the three Baltic states, White House said.

The leaders agreed that Russia must pull its military forces in Ukraine’s strategic Crimea peninsula back to bases it has there, allow access for international observers and human rights monitors and form a contact group to begin holding direct talks between Ukraine and Russia to reduce tensions in the region, the White House said.

Obama held individual conversations with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President Francois Hollande. He also held a conference call with Latvian President Andris Berzins, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.

On the conference call, Obama reaffirmed the United States’ “unwavering commitment” to its collective defense commitments under NATO and “enduring support for the security and democracy of our Baltic allies,” the White House said. It said the Baltic leaders welcomed the additional support.

In his talks with Cameron, Hollande and Renzi, Obama welcomed the unified position of the United States and the European Union on Russian actions in Ukraine, including by the European Council, which is made up of EU leaders. The council voted this week to condemn Russia’s action, demand the immediate withdrawal of its forces and seek access to Crimea for international monitors.

Russian forces invaded Crimea a week ago in a move that the U.S. and its allies have strongly condemned as a violation of international law.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he has the right to protect Russian interests and the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.

The regional parliament in Crimea, a pro-Russian area of Ukraine, has set a March 16 vote on leaving Ukraine to join Russia. The U.S. and its allies, including those Obama consulted Saturday, oppose the vote as contrary to Ukraine’s constitution and therefore illegal. They say all decisions about Ukraine’s future must include the country’s new government in Kiev.

Obama took steps this week to impose financial sanctions and travel bans against those the U.S. accuses of threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial borders.

On Saturday’s calls, the leaders also agreed that the international community must support Ukraine’s efforts to stabilize its economy and prepare for elections in May.

The consultations were Obama’s first on Ukraine with Renzi and the Baltic presidents. Renzi has held his job for less than a month.

Vice President Joe Biden previously discussed Ukraine with the leaders of Latvia and Estonia.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced earlier this week that the U.S. was stepping up its participation in NATO’s air policing mission in the Baltic countries. All three are members of the NATO military alliance. Six U.S. fighter jets and two tanker planes arrived in Lithuania this week.

Obama discussed Ukraine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday after he arrived in tropical Key Largo, Florida, with his wife and daughters for a weekend vacation.