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Talks on Ukraine fail to ease tensions

by By MICHAEL R. GORDON and STEVEN LEE MYERS New York Times News Service on March 15, 2014 10:25 AM

LONDON — An eleventh-hour bid by Secretary of State John Kerry to ease the escalating crisis over the Kremlin’s intervention in Crimea ended in failure Friday, raising the likelihood of sanctions against Russia and deepening the most serious East-West rift since the end of the Cold War.

U.S. officials said they presented a range of ideas on how a compromise over Crimea might be achieved, including arrangements to expand the peninsula’s autonomy and safeguard the rights of the Russian-speaking population.

But the officials said Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, appeared to have little or no leeway to negotiate and that President Vladimir Putin was determined that Crimea’s referendum on seceding from Ukraine should proceed Sunday.

“I presented a number of ideas on behalf of the president,” Kerry said in a news conference after the talks. “After much discussion, the foreign minister made it clear that President Putin is not prepared to make any decision on Ukraine until after the referendum on Sunday.”

Kerry refused to treat Russia’s possible annexation of Crimea as a fait accompli, holding out hope that Putin might yet decide to resolve the crisis diplomatically after the referendum.

But to many experts, Lavrov’s apparent lack of even minimal authority to explore a political compromise suggested that Putin’s decision to annex the peninsula was all but final.

That has left the two sides on a collision course, and Western officials have suggested that sanctions could be imposed as early as Monday.

“There will be consequences” if Ukraine’s sovereignty is violated, President Barack Obama told reporters as Kerry and Lavrov were meeting.

Putin’s decision to call a snap exercise involving thousands of troops near Ukraine’s borders this week had raised fears that Russia might deepen the crisis by intervening militarily in eastern Ukraine on the pretext of defending ethnic Russians, just as it had in Crimea.

“Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under protection,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

In London, Lavrov gave public assurances that Russia “does not have any plans to invade Eastern or Southern Ukraine” despite the buildup of Russian forces in regions along the Ukrainian border. But Kerry said the Russian foreign minister offered similar assurances in the days before the Kremlin sent troops into Crimea.

Kerry said he had advanced proposals to “freeze” destabilizing military moves while talks proceeded and hoped Lavrov would transmit them to Putin. But it was unclear if the Russian president was interested in considering them.

One Western official, who asked not to be named in order to discuss intelligence reports, said that the military maneuvers Putin ordered this week were an exercise in “political coercion, at a minimum.”

Adding to the worries are reports that large numbers of Russians are being bused to the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk so that they can agitate against the new Ukrainian government under the supervision of Russian intelligence officers, the Western official said.

For his part, Putin spoke by telephone with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement, and emphasized that the decision to hold the referendum on Crimea’s status “fully complies with international law and the United Nations Charter.”

Though Western officials acknowledge there is strong sentiment in Crimea for rejoining Russia, they say the referendum is illegal under Ukrainian law and is being held in the presence of as many as 20,000 Russian troops.

U.S. officials said that American and European sanctions against Russia would be put in effect early next week if the referendum took place Sunday and that more economic sanctions would be imposed if Russia escalates the conflict or annexes Crimea.

On Friday evening, the White House announced that Vice President Joe Biden would go to Poland and Lithuania next week to reassure leaders in Eastern Europe and the Baltics of U.S. and NATO support after the Crimea referendum. Biden is scheduled to meet with the Polish president and prime minister Tuesday. A day later, he will meet in Vilnius with the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — all former Soviet republics rattled by the recent Russian moves in Ukraine.

A major question for the United States and its partners is whether Putin’s strategy is limited to protecting Russian interests in Crimea or is the first move in a broader campaign to undermine Ukraine’s new government and weaken its authority over the eastern portion of the country.

Lavrov did not shed any light on that question, but he did blame Western nations for aggravating the crisis.

“We don’t have a common vision of the situation,” Lavrov said during his appearance after the talks, which he nonetheless called helpful in clarifying the seemingly intractable positions. “Our differences remain.”

Lavrov brushed aside the threats of sanctions and other punitive measures, made by Obama and European leaders, saying sanctions that have been widely discussed by officials and reported in the news media would be “a counterproductive instrument.”

In Kiev, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., called on the United States to quickly ship American weapons to Ukraine to fortify its army for a potential war with Russia.

The Ukrainian army has only “a few thousand combat-ready troops,” McCain said. “They would be overwhelmed by the Russians if it came to that. One of their urgent requests is to have us supply them with weapons. I’ll be urging our administration to arrange for that as quickly as possible.”

Gordon reported from London and Myers from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Andrew Kramer in Kiev, Alan Cowell in London, Peter Baker in Washington and Somini Sengupta at the United Nations.

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