Russian and US leaders speak by phone

US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin for two hours on Saturday, according to a White House official.

Their conversation – their first since President Donald Trump’s inauguration – focused on ongoing tensions in eastern Ukraine. Mr Biden had been scheduled to travel to Ukraine on Sunday, but he’ll stay home.

The official said Mr Biden told Mr Putin that “a direct response is needed from Russia” for its recent aggressive actions in eastern Ukraine.

European Union leaders also signed off on new sanctions against Russia over Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Saturday.

However, no new measures will take effect until after March, and the new sanctions are intended to cover businesses and organisations including banks and energy companies.

Mr Putin has been blamed for ongoing bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops.

Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula, in 2014. Kiev declared its independence in the same year. The conflict between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has cost more than 10,000 lives since 2014.

UN investigators have stated that up to 10,000 civilians and more than 4,000 combatants have been killed since a ceasefire was signed in February 2015.

Mr Trump recently signed off on an annual report from the US State Department that states Russia has been maintaining a “pattern of aggressive behaviour in Ukraine.”

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