US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks yesterday (30 March) about ways to defuse the crisis over Ukraine, with Kerry telling Moscow that progress depended on a Russian troop pullback from Ukraine's borders.
"Both sides made suggestions of ways to de-escalate the security and political situation in and around Ukraine," Kerry told a news conference late on Sunday after meeting with Lavrov for four hours in Paris.
"Any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine's borders," Kerry said. "We believe these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine. It certainly does not create the climate that we need."
The two were seeking to hammer out the framework of a deal to reduce tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. The Russian move into Crimea, following the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president in February, has sparked the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War ended two decades ago.
While there were no outlines of an agreement, the two sides agreed to keep talking, and both said the Ukrainian government had to be part of the solution.
"Neither Russia, nor the United States, nor anyone else can impose any specific plans on Ukrainians," Lavrov told a separate briefing as quoted by the RIA news agency.
Washington is adamant that there could be "no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine," Kerry told reporters, adding the United States saw its role as creating conditions for negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv.
Kerry made clear that Washington still considered Russian actions in Crimea to be "illegal and illegitimate."
The United States and European Union have issued two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including visa bans and asset freezes on some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, to punish Moscow over its seizure of Crimea, a Russian-majority Black Sea peninsula.
Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a 16 March referendum dismissed as a sham by Western governments, who say it violated Ukraine's constitution and was held only after Russian forces seized control of the region (background).
"The U.S. and Russia have differences of opinion about events that led to this crisis, but both of us recognize the importance of finding a diplomatic solution and simultaneously meeting the needs of the Ukrainian people," Kerry said.
A federal model?
Hours before the meeting, Lavrov called on Western powers to back a proposal for a "federal" structure in Ukraine.
"If our Western partners are prepared, Russia, the US and the EU will be able to set up a group of support to Ukraine and to formulate general appeals to those who rule in Ukraine now," Lavrov told Russian state television, according to state news agency ITAR-Tass.
This would lead to talks between "all political forces without exception, naturally not armed radicals" and would result in a new constitution allowing for a "federal system of government," he said.
"If our partners are prepared for this, we are open for broadest cooperation," Lavrov added.
Kerry said that subject was not discussed with Lavrov because it's a decision Ukraine's leaders must make.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry rejected those demands. In a statement, the ministry said :
“Under the barrels of its machine guns, this aggressor demands only one thing — the complete capitulation of Ukraine, its dismemberment, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood. Russia’s proposals for federalization, a second official language, and referendums are viewed in Ukraine as nothing less than proof of Russia’s aggression”.
The Ukrainian foreign ministry hit back at Russia, advising it to apply the same rules it advocates with respect to its own minorities.
“Why does not Russia give substance to the federalism which, incidentally, is in its official name and which remains a meaningless, declarative concept?" Ukraine's Foreign Ministry rejected those demands. In a statement, the ministry said:
“The ultimatum and the didactic tone of these statements demonstrate that as the real aggressor Russia does not accept any control over its own behavior. Under the barrels of its machine guns, this aggressor demands only one thing — the complete capitulation of Ukraine, its dismemberment, and the destruction of Ukrainian statehood. Russia’s proposals for federalization, a second official language, and referendums are viewed in Ukraine as nothing less than proof of Russia’s aggression. We sincerely regret that Minister Sergei Lavrov had to voice them.
"We would like to propose to the Russian side that before issuing ultimatums to a sovereign and independent state, it turn its attention to the disastrous conditions and complete powerlessness of its own national minorities, including the Ukrainian one. Why does not Russia give substance to the federalism which, incidentally, is in its official name and which remains a meaningless, declarative concept,” Kyiv asks.
The West has refused to recognise Crimea's absorption into Russia, although US officials acknowledge that the takeover of not likely to be resolved soon. Instead, talks have focused on warning Moscow not to go farther into Ukraine.
US officials are deeply worried about the massing of what they estimate are up to 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border, which is stoking concerns in Washington and elsewhere that Russia is preparing a wider incursion into Ukraine.
While Moscow has said the buildup is part of normal Russian exercises only, US President Barack Obama has described it as out of the ordinary that could be a precursor to other actions.
America's top general in Europe was sent back early from a trip to Washington, in what the Pentagon on Sunday called a prudent step given Russia's "lack of transparency" about troop movements across the border with Ukraine.
General Philip Breedlove, who is NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of the US military's European Command, arrived in Europe on Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before the US Congress this week.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel considered Breedlove's early return "the prudent thing to do, given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border," a Pentagon spokesman said.
Western powers have threatened tougher sanctions against Russia's stuttering economy if Moscow invades eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov, speaking on Russian television on Saturday, said Moscow had "no intention" of invading eastern Ukraine and reinforced a message from Putin that Moscow would settle, at least for now, for control over Crimea.
Lavrov, added, however, that Russia was ready to protect the rights of Russian speakers, referring to what Moscow sees as threats to the lives of compatriots in eastern Ukraine.
Kerry said on Sunday the US side felt increased acknowledgement on Russia's part that Ukraine's transitional government was taking steps to address Moscow's concerns, including the rights of minorities, constitutional reform, and free and fair elections.
Lavrov told reporters: "We have agreed to work with the Ukrainian government and people to achieve progress in rights of minorities and linguistic rights," Interfax reported.
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting followed a phone call between Obama and Putin last week, and came days before NATO foreign ministers hold meetings in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, which are likely to focus on Ukraine.