Kerry and Lavrov tackle Ukraine crisis

Agence France-Presse
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets his Russian counterpart on Sunday, March 30, hoping to ease global tensions over the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea and sudden buildup of troops near Ukraine

PARIS, France – US Secretary of State John Kerry meets his Russian counterpart on Sunday, March 30, hoping to ease global tensions over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and sudden buildup of troops near Ukraine.

The latest attempt to resolve the worst East-West standoff in the post-Cold War era follows a sudden call placed by Vladimir Putin on Friday to US President Barack Obama – the first by the Russian leader since he sent troops into Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula in response to the February 22 fall in Kiev of a pro-Kremlin regime.

Obama had spent the prior week touring Europe in a bid to reassure jittery allies of Washington’s firm resolve to dampen Putin’s expansionist passions with the threat of punishing economic sanctions and the reinforcement of NATO forces along Russia’s western flank.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said ahead of his Paris meeting with Kerry – expected to start at 1630 GMT — that Moscow had “absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border”.

But the two sides still remain far apart on both the content and format of the talks.

‘No single plan’

The Russians in particular are seething at the idea that they are responding to a diplomatic solution drafted by the Obama administrations.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov insisted on Saturday that “it is the United States that is responding to our proposals on Ukraine”.

“To say that we are working off US proposals is simply incorrect,” he told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

“We have no single plan,” Ryabkov stressed. “We have differing views of the situation. Our discussions involve an exchange of ideas, but one cannot say that we have some sort of single approach.”

Washington has a different take on the discussion.

US diplomats say Kerry is hoping to get Putin’s written response to proposals drafted by the Obama administration after it became clear from earlier meetings in Paris and London that Lavrov was not authorised to negotiate over Crimea.

They add that under discussion is a specific one-page document that has been redrawn repeatedly in the past weeks.

At the heart of the US initiative is a commitment by Russia to halt its military buildup near its ex-Soviet neighbour — estimated by US and EU diplomats to have reached between 30,000 and 40,000 soldiers in recent days — and to order its Crimean forces back to their bases.

Westerns nations would for their part agree to deploy monitors to protect the interests of Russian speakers who Putin says have been coming under increasing attack in southeastern Ukraine since last month’s rise to power in Kiev of a pro-European regime that relies on the support of the country’s more nationalist forces.

More autonomy

The announced portions of Russia’s approach avoid any mention of a possible movement of troops either away from Ukraine or back to their Crimean installations.

Moscow has also rejected holding direct negotiations with the new Kiev leaders under the auspices of either Washington or some international contact group — an idea particularly favoured by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

At the same time Putin’s spokesman told German TV on Sunday that the Russian leader found his telephone talks with Merkel on the Ukraine crisis “were worth their weight in gold” and “we hope that it (the dialogue) is continued.”

Moscow has insisted on a new constitution being drafted in Ukraine that would offer much broader autonomy to heavily Russified eastern regions such as Kharkiv and Donetsk.

Moscow’s plan would allow these parts of Ukraine to declare Russian as a second official language and secure more independence from Kiev — a move analysts view as a bid to weaken the authority of what is like to be a permanent new pro-Western leadership whose make-up will become clear after May 25 snap president polls.

Lavrov told Russian state television on Sunday that Kiev appears to be strongly resistant to Moscow’s solution.

Ukraine’s interim Foreign Minister “Andriy Deshchytsya said that our proposals are unacceptable because federalism contradicts the basic principles of his state,” Lavrov said in reference to the two diplomats’ first and only meeting in The Hague on March 24.

Russia further wants the constitution to proclaim Ukraine a neutral country that will never join forces with NATO — membership which Kiev’s interim leaders say they are not seeking now.

Chocolate king

The first contours of Ukraine’s new leadership began to emerge on Saturday when boxer turn opposition leader dropped Vitali Klitschko dropped out of the presidential election and threw his weight behind the candidacy of business baron Petro Poroshenko.

The charismatic tycoon — known at home as the “chocolate king” because of his vast Roshen sweets empire — has a healthy lead in opinion polls over former premier and 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution coleader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Both candidates support Ukraine’s future membership in the European Union and are furious over the loss of Crimea — views that may complicate relations between Moscow and Kiev for years to come.

But Tymoshenko further wants Ukraine to join NATO and advocates trying the Russians responsible for the Crimean incursion at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. –

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