US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are due to hold crucial talks to try to ease tensions over the Ukraine crisis.
The US accuses Moscow of deploying troops in Ukraine’s Crimea region, describing it as an “act of aggression” - a claim denied by the Kremlin. Despite the sharp differences, both sides have hinted they would prefer to start a dialogue. Moscow remains in de facto control of Ukraine’s southern autonomous region. The tense standoff continued overnight in Crimea, but there were no reports of any violence.
Earlier this week tensions escalated further over Russia’s warnings that it could also move into eastern Ukraine to protect Russians and Russian-speakers there. The move has triggered wide condemnation across the globe. In other developments: NATO and Russia will hold talks in Brussels. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier said Russia continued to “violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton will travel to Kiev for talks with the new government and Russia said it successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov are expected to meet on the sidelines of a long-planned conference on Lebanon in Paris. But the gathering is now being seen above all as a chance to test waters for a dialogue about Ukraine, says the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall.
Moscow has strongly condemned the recent change of government in Ukraine, which came after months of street protests, more than 90 deaths and the flight of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian ally. Speaking during a visit to the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry said there was no indication at all that Russian citizens or Russian-speakers were in any danger in post-uprising Ukraine. “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said. US President Barack Obama accused Russia of “seeking through force to exert influence on a neighbouring country.”
But at a news conference on Tuesday, in his first public comments on the issue, Mr. Putin denied the heavily armed troops were Russian. He said they were “local self-defence forces” loyal to Moscow, protecting the bases from “nationalists” and “anti-Semites.” Russia, said Mr. Putin, reserved the right to act to protect Russian citizens and speakers anywhere in Ukraine. However, his decision to end military exercises near Ukraine’s border were seen as encouraging by some analysts.
On Tuesday, President Obama held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss his plan how to de-escalate the crisis, White House officials said. They said Mr. Obama’s offer to Moscow envisaged the return of the Russian troops in Crimea back to the bases of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the peninsula. The plan - which Mr. Obama discussed with President Putin on Saturday - also calls for sending a group of international monitors to Ukraine to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians are protected. And it encourages a direct dialogue between the government in Kiev and Moscow. The Kremlin has so far not publicly commented on the offer. But in one hint of progress, Ukraine’s new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said consultations had taken place between Russian and Ukrainian ministers. He described them as “quite sluggish.”
Moscow has tightened its grip over the Crimean peninsula after troops thought to be Russian or pro-Russian began taking control of strategic points on Saturday. Troops are surrounding Ukrainian military bases and other installations, while two Ukrainian warships are reported to be blocked by a Russian ship in the port of Sevastopol.
Ukrainian TV reported on Tuesday evening that armed men had attempted to take over an anti-aircraft missile base in Yevpatoria, on the coast north of Sevastopol. In Crimea and in eastern Ukraine, there have been shows of support for Russian intervention. But on Tuesday a peace rally was held in the eastern city of Donetsk, urging Russia to stay away. Both the US and the EU have offered financial help to Ukraine, which is facing a growing economic crisis amid its severed ties with Moscow.