Kerry, Russian Counterpart Meet on Ukraine Crisis

PARIS (AP) -
Secretary of State John Kerry (L) gestures as he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet at the Russian Ambassador’s Residence to discuss Ukraine, in Paris Sunday  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
Secretary of State John Kerry (L) gestures as he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet at the Russian Ambassador’s Residence to discuss Ukraine, in Paris Sunday (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

Russia on Sunday set out demands for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine, saying the former Soviet republic should be unified in a federation allowing wide autonomy to its various regions as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Paris in another bid to calm tensions.

After a brief call on French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry sat down with Lavrov at the residence of the Russian ambassador to France to go over Moscow’s response to a U.S. plan to de-escalate the situation as Russian troops continue to mass along the Ukrainian border.

The men said nothing of substance as they shook hands, although after Kerry ended the photo op before their meeting by thanking assembled journalists, Lavrov cryptically added, in English, “Good luck, and good night.”

Their meeting ended Sunday evening after four hours, including dinner. Kerry was conferring with aides and did not immediately provide a briefing on their lengthy talks.

Appearing on Russian media ahead of his talks with Kerry, Lavrov rejected suspicions that the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine is a sign Moscow plans to invade the country following its annexation of the strategic Crimean peninsula.

“We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders,” Lavrov said.

Russia says the troops near the border are there for military exercises and that they have no plans to invade, but U.S. and European officials say the numbers and locations of the troops suggest something more than exercises.

And, despite the Russian assurances, U.S., European and Ukrainian officials are deeply concerned about the buildup, which they fear could be a prelude to an invasion or intimidation to compel Kiev to accept Moscow’s demands.

In his interview, Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s stability and neutrality.

“We can’t see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement,” Lavrov said, adding that he understood the United States was open to the idea.

Ukrainian armored vehicles are prepared for loading onto a train at a railway station near Simferopol, Crimea, Saturday. Ukraine started withdrawing its troops and weapons from Crimea, now controlled by Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Polegenko)
Ukrainian armored vehicles are prepared for loading onto a train at a railway station near Simferopol, Crimea, Saturday. Ukraine started withdrawing its troops and weapons from Crimea, now controlled by Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Polegenko)

U.S. officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine’s governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. However, they are exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.

The plan that Kerry and Lavrov are discussing covers Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms as well as the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights and direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, according to U.S. officials, who say it has the backing of Ukraine’s government.

Kerry and Lavrov have met several times in person and spoken by phone almost daily since the crisis began but have not yet been able to agree on a way forward. The pair met last week in The Hague, where Kerry presented Lavrov with the proposal, which was a response to ideas Lavrov gave him at a March 10 meeting in London.

Sunday’s meeting follows an hourlong phone call Friday between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists is not happening.

That call did little to reassure U.S. officials that Russia is not planning to invade Ukraine after its annexation of Crimea that the west has condemned as illegal and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.