05, 2014]By John Irish and Timothy Heritage
PARIS / KIEV (Reuters) — Russia said on
Wednesday it could not order "self-defense" forces in Crimea back to
their bases ahead of the first face-to-face talks with the United States
on easing tensions over Ukraine and averting the risk of war.
Russia and the West are facing the most serious confrontation
since the end of the Cold War over influence in Ukraine, a major
commodities exporter and strategic link between East and West.
Ukraine pulled out of a trade deal with the European Union under
Russian pressure last year, leading to months of street protests in
Kiev and the February 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich, a
Russia has effectively occupied the Crimea region, further raising
the tensions in the region and provoking sharp falls in financial
markets on Monday although they have since stabilized.
Speaking before meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris
later in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated
Moscow's assertion — ridiculed by the West — that the troops that
have seized control of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula are not
under Russian command.
"If you mean the self-defense units created by the inhabitants of
Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," Lavrov
told a questioner at a joint news conference with his Spanish
counterpart in Madrid.
"As for the military personnel of the (Russian) Black Sea Fleet,
they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance
measures were taken to safeguard the sites... We will do everything
not to allow any bloodshed."
Lavrov will also meet the German, British and French foreign
ministers and France's President Francois Hollande on the sidelines
of a conference in Paris attended by the five permanent members of
the U.N. Security Council.
NATO and Russia will hold parallel talks in Brussels amid concerns
that a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Crimea could
still spark violence, or that Moscow could also intervene in
Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
The West is pushing for Russia to return troops to barracks, accept
international monitors in Crimea and Ukraine and negotiate a
solution to the crisis through a "contact group" probably under the
auspices of a pan-European security body.
France said European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday
could decide on sanctions against Russia if there is no
"de-escalation" by then. Other EU countries, including Germany, are
more reticent about sanctions.
President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended Russia's actions in
Crimea, which used to be Russian territory, and said he would use
force only as a last resort.
This eased market fears of a war over the former Soviet republic
after sharp falls on Monday, although Russian shares and the ruble
slipped again on Wednesday and Ukraine's hryvnia dropped against the
"LIKE THE USSR"
Russian forces remain in control of Crimea, where Interfax reported
they seized control of two Ukrainian missile defense sites
overnight, and Putin gave no sign of backing down.
"What he wants above all is a new empire, like the USSR but called
Russia," former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told France's
Europe 1 radio.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia
had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin
the right to intervene militarily.
"President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a
different set of interpretations," Obama said. "But I don't think
that's fooling anybody."
A senior administration official said Obama spoke to German
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and discussed a potential
resolution to the crisis. The Russian-speaking German leader has
good relations with the German-speaking Putin, and Berlin is
Russia's biggest economic partner.
The official said Obama, in his phone call with Putin last Saturday,
had discussed what officials called an "off-ramp" to the crisis in
which Russia would pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases and
allow international monitors to ensure that the rights of ethnic
Russians are protected.
The U.S. president will stay away from a G8 summit scheduled for
Sochi, Russia, in June unless there is a Russian reversal in the
Ukraine crisis, the official added.
At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said on
Tuesday that Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect
compatriots who were living in "terror" in Ukraine but that force
was not needed for now.
France's Hollande became the latest Western leader to raise the
possibility of sanctions if Putin does not step back and accept
mediation. He set out a tougher public line than Merkel, who has
avoided talk of sanctions so far.
"The role of France alongside Europe ... is to exert all necessary
pressure, including a possible imposition of sanctions, to push for
dialogue and seek a political solution to this crisis." he said at
an annual dinner of France's Jewish community leaders late on
Putin has said Western sanctions under consideration against Russia
would be counter-productive and the Russian Information Agency
reported that Moscow is preparing counter-measures against Western
firms if necessary.
A senior U.S. official said Washington was ready to impose sanctions
in days rather than weeks.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after speaking to Obama
at the weekend that the Group of Seven leading industrialized
nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that
would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when
Russia was formally included.
Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Yanukovich,
accused Moscow on Tuesday of seeking a pretext to invade more of the
He said the United States was not seeking a confrontation and would
prefer to see the situation managed through international
institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE).
Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchitsia, is also in
Paris for talks with French officials and Kerry. It was not clear if
he too would meet Lavrov.
Lavrov told European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton
that an EU-brokered agreement signed by political leaders in Kiev on February 21 should be the basis for stabilizing the
situation in Ukraine, his ministry said on Wednesday.
He said the agreement foresaw constitutional reform which would take
into account the wishes of all regions in Ukraine. Russia says the
deal was broken by the removal of Yanukovich.
No major incidents were reported in Crimea on Wednesday and
Ukraine's top security official said he hoped the crisis could be
In a sign of the fragility of the situation, a Russian soldier on
Tuesday fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed
Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards
their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops
at Belbek, near Sevastopol.
After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other
and Russian soldiers leveled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade
launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the
Ukrainians eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.
The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had
blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but
Ukraine's infrastructure ministry said the 4.5-km (2.7-mile) wide
waterway was still open for civilian shipping.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Kiev and Gabriel
Baczynska in Moscow; writing by Timothy Heritage and Paul Taylor;
editing by Anna Willard)