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US cites evidence of Russian activity in Ukraine

Pro-Russian protestors wave the Russian flag in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk.

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Pro-Russian protestors wave the Russian flag in front of the police headquarters in Slaviansk.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House on Monday said there was ‘‘overwhelming evidence’’ that Russia is fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but suggested that President Barack Obama has not yet concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions warrant broader sanctions on key Russian economic sectors.

‘‘We are actively evaluating what is happening in eastern Ukraine, what actions Russia has taken, what transgressions they've engaged in,’’ White House spokesman Jay Carney said. ‘‘And we are working with our partners and assessing for ourselves what response we may choose.’’

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Obama and Putin spoke Monday for the first time in more than two weeks. The Kremlin said Putin urged Obama to discourage the Ukrainian government from using force against protesters in the country’s east.

The Kremlin said in a statement following Monday’s conversation that the Russian leader rejected the claims of Russian agents’ involvement in protests as ‘‘speculations based on unreliable information.’’ Putin said the protests vented public anger about the Ukrainian government’s reluctance to recognize the interests of Russian speakers in the east.

Administration officials did confirm that CIA chief John Brennan visited the Ukrainian capital of Kiev over the weekend, breaking with the administration’s typical practice of not disclosing the director’s travel. Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych accused Brennan of being behind Ukraine’s decision to send troops into the east to try to quash an increasingly brazen pro-Russian insurgency.

While U.S. officials denied those accusations, confirmation of Brennan’s visit could provide fodder for Russian officials to create a pretext for further incursions into eastern Ukraine.

Since Obama and Putin last spoke, pro-Russian forces have undertaken a rampage of storming and occupying local government offices, police stations and a small airport in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian government has proved powerless to rein in the separatists, who are demanding more autonomy from the central government in Kiev and closer ties to Russia.

The White House has blamed the unrest on Russia, saying there are undeniable similarities between the situation in eastern Ukraine and the Kremlin’s maneuvers in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last month.

‘‘The evidence is compelling that Russia is supporting these efforts and involved in these efforts,’’ Carney said. ‘‘You saw this coordinated effort in a number of cities across eastern Ukraine all at once that sure didn’t look organic to observers from the outside.’’

Despite those assertions, it was unclear whether the U.S. planned to respond with deeper economic penalties. Obama has repeatedly warned that Russian advances into eastern Ukraine would mark a serious escalation of the crisis that would warrant a stronger international response, including the prospect of sanctions on Russia’s energy sector and other key industries.

But the administration has avoided saying whether Russia’s actions in the east thus far have crossed that line. U.S. officials are also still trying to rally support for sector sanctions from Europe, which has a far deeper economic relationship with Russia and would therefore be more likely to be negatively affected by the penalties.

As part of that effort, Obama spoke Monday with French President Francois Hollande. The French leader said in a statement that he and Obama discussed the importance of avoiding provocations in Ukraine and establishing a policy of strong and calibrated sanctions along with other European partners.

A high-ranking European Union official said foreign ministers did decide Monday to sanction more Russians with asset freezes and visa bans, though they appeared to stop short of the broader penalties on Russia’s economy.

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Associated Press writers Nedra Pickler in Washington and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

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