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PARIS — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Paris today preparing to meet with his Russian counterpart in another bid to calm tensions and resolve the crisis over Ukraine.
Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov planned to sit down later today 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.
U.S. officials say the plan covers the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights, direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine and Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms.
Russian officials, including Lavrov, have been floating a federal framework for Ukraine in which different regions would enjoy wide autonomy from the central government. U.S. officials have said they are open to considering such an idea but that it must be acceptable to the Ukrainian people.
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.
Today'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 the country’s strategic Crimea peninsula that the west has condemned as illegal and a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials in response, sparking reciprocal moves from Moscow.
In an interview today with Russian television, Lavrov called the sanctions a “dead-end” strategy that would not achieve results and accused the west of hypocrisy. He said it was inconsistent for the west to refuse to recognize Crimea’s annexation, which followed a referendum on joining Russia that was overwhelmingly approved, while at the same time accepting the new government in Kiev, which was formed after the pro-Moscow president fled the country.
“If they are willing to accept the first event as legitimate, then surely they are obliged to acknowledge the second,” Lavrov told Russia’s Channel One television.
The two sides remain far apart, a situation underscored by the fact that the White House and the Kremlin offered starkly different summaries of the Obama-Putin call, which occurred while Obama was traveling in Saudi Arabia.
The contrasting interpretations highlighted the chasm between how Moscow and Washington perceive the escalating international standoff sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
White House officials described the call as “frank and direct” and said Obama had urged Putin to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the U.S. has presented. He urged Moscow to scale back its troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, which has prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.
Russia maintains that its 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.
“We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders,” Lavrov said.
The Kremlin, on the other hand, said Putin had drawn Obama’s attention to a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation” in Ukraine.