Western and Russian leaders headed into a day of diplomatic wrangling over the Ukraine crisis Wednesday (05/03/2014), a day after US President Barack Obama warned Moscow was not “fooling anybody” over its role in Crimea.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was to meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Ukraine’s Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted after three months of pro-European Union protests which left nearly 100 dead.
Their talks, on the sidelines of a Paris meeting on Lebanon, come a day after Obama squarely accused Russia of orchestrating a power grab in the ex-Soviet state’s Crimea pensinsula.
Pro-Russian forces have taken de facto control of Crimea, blocking Ukrainian troops in their barracks in the most serious stand-off between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
Obama’s stern words came after Putin denied its forces were operating in Crimea, insisting the gunmen were “local self-defence forces” not Russian soldiers, adding: “You can go into a shop and buy any kind of uniform.”
But while stepping up the pressure, the United States was also seen seeking to offer Putin a way out of the crisis.
Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday and the two agreed on the importance of a “deescalation” with the deployment of international observers and the start of talks between Moscow and Kiev, a US official said.
Crimea, an autonomous peninsula within Ukraine with a Russian ethnic majority, has been home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet since the 18th century.
The “deescalation” on the Russian side would include its troops going back inside their bases in Crimea, the official added, while Russian doubts on the legitimacy of Kiev’s interim government would be resolved by elections planned for May.
Western diplomats have launched an urgent round of consultations to try and calm tensions in Ukraine, the largest country located entirely within Europe.
Lavrov is holding talks with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo and a press conference before flying to Paris, where he will meet Kerry as well as foreign ministers from Britain, France and Germany.
Separately, Kerry is also holding three-way talks with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia.
The EU is due to hold an emergency summit on the crisis in Brussels on Thursday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton indefinitely postponed a Kiev trip planned for Wednesday, and was instead to meet Western and Ukrainian leaders in Brussels and Paris ahead of the summit, her spokeswoman said.
The scale of the diplomats’ task was underlined by the tough-worded exchanges between the US and Russia Tuesday after Putin held his first press conference since Yanukovych was toppled.
His denial Russian troops were in Crimea and insistence that Russia reserved the right to “use all available means” prompted sharp criticism from the US.
Obama said the European Union and allies like Canada and Japan all believed Russia had violated international law by mobilising troops following the February 22 ouster of Yanukovych.
“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers, maybe a different set of interpretations. But I do not think that is fooling anybody,” Obama said.
In Kiev, Kerry condemned Russia’s “act of aggression” and accused Moscow of “working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further”.
The United States announced 1 billion of loan guarantees for Ukraine on Kerry’s trip and officials indicated Russia could face sanctions as early as this week.
Highlighting tensions, Russia carried out a successful test launch of an “advanced” intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday, state news agencies reported. The US was informed of the test earlier this week, a US defence official said.
There was no immediate sign of calm returning to Crimea.
In one incident Tuesday, Russian forces fired into the air as unarmed Ukrainian soldiers approached them at a base near Sevastopol, in what appeared to be the first shots fired since the Crimean crisis erupted.
In Sevastopol, a bastion of pro-Kremlin sentiment, the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy in Crimea was surrounded by around 100 pro-Russian activists who formed a human chain as Russian forces with automatic rifles looked on.
Ukrainian defence officials said Russian vessels were also blocking Ukrainian warships from trying to leave the port.
As tensions ratchet up in Crimea, young men in Kiev were queuing to sign up for military service, ready to take up arms if it comes to a war with Russia.
“I want to take part in the fight,” said Roman Surzhikov, a 33-year-old engineer and army reservist.
Asian markets continued to stabilise Wednesday as traders betted on tensions easing in the crisis, but experts warn that a full resolution may be a long time coming.
Markets were recovering after Russia’s revelation it sold a record 11.3 billion in foreign currency on Monday to support the ruble and stop it from falling further.
The day was dubbed “Black Monday” as concern about the Ukraine conflict sent stock markets falling around the world.
Tokyo on Wednesday jumped 1.20 percent, while Seoul climbed 0.88 percent to close at 1,971.24. Sydney added 0.85 percent to 5,446.2. But Shanghai ended 0.89 percent lower, giving up 18.39 points to 2,053.08, and in afternoon trading, Hong Kong slipped 0.33 percent.
“The geopolitical tension is by no means over especially as measures of economic sanctions against Russia continue to be under discussion in the West,” Credit Agricole said.
But barring “another quick twist in the calming situation, market sentiment will likely remain relatively healthy”, it added.
“The risks to Russia from its present policies are high and the opportunities for Western policies to have a beneficial effect are likely to grow, provided always that the US maintains a consistently firm approach and that the EU manages to stick together,” said Andrew Wood of London-based foreign affairs think-tank Chatham House. – AFP