BRISBANE, Australia – Russian President Vladimir Putin made an early exit on Sunday from a two-day summit of world leaders where he was roundly criticized over Russia’s escalating aggression in Ukraine, but brushed off suggestions that he had felt pressured.
Putin was the first leader to fly out of Brisbane on Sunday afternoon as his fellow leaders in the G-20 club of wealthy and developing nations shared a lunch and before they released the communique to cap off their annual summit.
He also departed Australia shortly before President Barack Obama and European leaders opened their talks on Ukraine, where Russia is backing separatist rebels in the east of the country after annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March. In July, A Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down, killing all 298 people on board, while flying over a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine.
Putin explained he left early because he wanted to be rested before returning to work. He began the half-hour press conference by praising his host, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for providing a “nice, welcoming and good working atmosphere.”
“On Monday I must go to work. I hope to have four or five hours to sleep,” Putin said shortly before leaving Brisbane. “I told this to Tony and he was very understanding so I didn’t give it a second thought.”
New Corp. newspapers in Australia reported Sunday that Putin was the day before considering an early departure in response to the cold shoulder from world leaders. But Abbott’s office said the early afternoon exit had been scheduled.
The U.S., Australia and Japan issued a statement condemning Russia for its actions in Ukraine, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reacted to an offer of a handshake from Putin by responding, “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”
Ukraine, once a part of the Soviet Union, has tilted toward the European Union, angering Putin who wants to keep the country within Russia’s orbit.
Obama bluntly accused Putin of not living up to a cease-fire agreement in Ukraine, but offered no new plans for how the West might change his calculus.
Obama spoke shortly after huddling with European leaders including French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the conflict and worsening security situation. On the potential for increasing sanctions against Russia, Obama said the U.S. and European allies are always looking at more penalties but the existing sanctions are “biting plenty good.”
Despite a cease-fire agreement between Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September, fighting continues and key conditions haven’t been met. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling the rebellion with a constant flow of troops and weapons, accusations Moscow has denied.
Abbott has been particularly strong-worded in his criticism of Russia since Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 plane was shot down in July. Australia lost 38 citizens and residents in the MH 17 disaster.
Abbott at one point said he planned to “shirt front” — or physically confront — Putin over the disaster.
Asked at the conclusion of the summit about where things stood with the Russian leader, Abbott responded that they’d had a “very robust” discussion about the situation in Ukraine.
“I utterly deplore what seems to be happening in eastern Ukraine,” Abbott said. “I demand that Russia fully co-operate with the investigation, the criminal investigation of the downing of MH17, one of the most terrible atrocities of recent times.”
Putin said Ukraine was never mentioned during the official G-20 meetings, but was brought up at every meeting with other leaders he attended on the sidelines.
“Those discussions were very honest, meaningful and very helpful,” Putin said.
“I spoke generally a bit about sanctions in my private meetings and there was a shared understanding that sanctions are bad for both countries and we also talked about what should be done to get out of this situation,” he said.
Asked if he had felt pressured by his G-20 colleagues, Putin told reporters: “I’m very happy with the result and with the atmosphere.”