WASHINGTON — President Obama leaves for Europe on Monday night cautiously optimistic that the crisis in Ukraine has turned a corner, but he will find himself face to face with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for the first time since the two squared off in a Cold-War-style showdown in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Obama’s trip to Poland, Belgium and France comes just days after Ukraine elected a pro-European president and Mr. Putin pulled Russian troops back from the border. American and European officials hope the developments have begun to defuse the crisis, and say they have decided to hold off any new sanctions on Russia absent fresh provocative action by Moscow.
But the situation in eastern Ukraine remains volatile, and specialists warn that Russia has not abandoned efforts to assert influence there. While American and European leaders breathe a sigh of relief, skeptics suggest Mr. Putin is playing for time, opting against an overt invasion that he may never have intended so as to lull the West while he cements his annexation of Crimea and works more quietly to disrupt eastern Ukraine without further penalty.