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Obama meets with key Putin ally amid push to isolate Russia

The thrust of his diplomatic efforts still focused on Ukraine, President Obama met Tuesday with a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin as he continued his efforts to isolate Moscow over its incursion into Crimea.

In a last minute addition to his schedule, Obama sat down with Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a long room at the U.S. embassy, with the two countries' flags set up behind them. U.S. officials offered no details about the meeting's agenda, but Nazarbayev is part of a Russia-centered economic bloc focused on Eurasia.

As the leaders wrapped up their meeting, the White House released a joint statement from Obama and Nazarbayev that did not address the Ukraine situation, but focused instead on bilateral cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation — the theme of concurrent summit serving as the official purpose for Obama's visit to the Netherlands.

Kazakhstan is the second largest country by territory and economy to emerge from the former Soviet Union. Nazarbayev has maneuvered between Russia and the West during more than two decades in power. Kazakhstan's energy resources and strong economy give it some independence from Moscow.

The United States was redoubling efforts to pressure Russia out of its aggressive pose as Obama's four-country, weeklong trip entered its second day. But to the east, the Russian annexation of Crimea was beginning to take root and Moscow shrugged off Obama's drive to leave Putin in the cold.

The U.S. and some of its closest allies cut Russia out indefinitely from a major coalition of leading industrial nations and canceled a summer summit Russia was to host in its Olympic village of Sochi. Obama also sought to win backing from other foreign leaders in hopes of ostracizing or even shaming Putin into reversing his acquisition of Crimea and backing away from any designs he might have on other Eastern Europe territory.

In a strongly worded joint statement, the United States, France, Canada, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan denounced a referendum in Crimea to secede from Ukraine and Russia's ensuing annexation. In so doing, the seven leaders also effectively excluded Russia from what had been a two-decade-old coalition known as the Group of Eight.

"This clear violation of international law is a serious challenge to the rule of law around the world and should be a concern for all nations," the declaration said.

Still, Monday's international gestures in Amsterdam and in The Hague got only a dismissive reaction from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"The G-8 is an informal club," he said. "It has no membership tickets, and it can't purge anyone by definition."

And in the Crimean Peninsula, Ukraine ordered its troops to pull back from the disputed territory, a clear signal that at least for now the fledgling Ukrainian government in Kiev was ceding to Russia's aggressive tactics.

The showdown between Russia and the West has evoked old Cold War tensions and was sure to dominate questions for Obama on Tuesday when he holds a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. It will be Obama's first news conference since Russia made a move on Crimea.

The opportunity for Obama to seek international support came as leaders from around the world already had converged in the Netherlands for a nuclear security summit, initially the featured event at the start of Obama's weeklong, four-country trip.

But Ukraine has so far dominated Obama's side discussions with world leaders and the G-7 members. Even Russia's Lavrov, in The Hague for the nuclear summit, met on the sidelines with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Speaking earlier Monday, with Rutte at his side, Obama called Russia's annexation of the peninsula on the Black Sea a "flagrant breach of international law and we condemn its actions in the strongest possible terms."

Obama also raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. White House aides later commended the Chinese for refusing to side with Russia, a longtime ally, on a U.N Security Council vote last week declaring the secession vote illegal. Russia, a Security Council permanent member, voted against it, while China abstained.

On Tuesday, Obama planned additional meetings on the security summit sidelines: a sit-down with Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the richest emirate in the United Arab Emirates federation, and a joint meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

Both those meetings are likely to focus less on Ukraine and more on regional tensions in the Middle East and in Northern Asia. The visit with the Abu Dhabi crown prince will also serve as precursor to Obama's on Friday visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with King Abdullah to address Arab anxieties over the Syrian civil war and U.S. nuclear talks with Iran, a Saudi Arabia rival in the region.

The meeting with Park and Abe brings together two U.S. Asian allies who have been quarreling over recent Abe gestures that have rekindled memories of Japan's aggression in World War II. It will be the first meeting between the two Asian leaders since they took office more than a year ago.

Despite Monday's Russian bluster and the Ukrainian troop withdrawal, U.S. and other Western officials took note of hopeful signs, including Lavrov's own meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, the highest-level encounter between the two nations since Russia moved forces into Crimea nearly a month ago.