Participants hold placards and shout slogans during an anti-war rally in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray yesterday. RIGHT: Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives for a meeting with counterparts from US, Britain, Germany, Spain and French President Hollande in Paris yesterday.
KIEV: The US and Russia stepped up diplomatic efforts to defuse the Ukraine crisis yesterday amid heightened tensions on the ground in the flashpoint area of Crimea as gunmen threatened the UN envoy.
US Secretary of State John Kerry held the first direct talks with his Russian counterpart as Washington warned Moscow it risked losing its coveted G8 place over the worst East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
The volatile situation in Eastern Ukraine showed little sign of easing as a dozen people were hurt as pro-Russian protesters took back the regional government building in the city of Donetsk.
And in Crimea, gunmen part-seized a Ukrainian missile facility in Cape Fiolent near Sevastopol, Ukrainian officials said.
Earlier yesterday, the European Union unveiled an aid package worth at least ¤11bn ($15bn) to support Ukraine’s new pro-EU leaders the day after the US announced a $1bn loan guarantee pledge.
The West continued its strategy of combining support for the new government in Kiev with pressure on a defiant Russia to back down.
US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew made clear it was also prepared to act ahead of a summit of G8 leaders in June.
“We are on a path where I think it’s clear Russia cannot sit in Sochi at G8 meetings while it’s pursuing the policies that it’s now pursuing,” Lew said.
Lavrov and Kerry were meeting for the first time since Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich was ousted late last month after three months of protests which left nearly 100 dead.
In a bid to end the crisis, US President Barack Obama has outlined proposals including Russian forces returning to their bases in strategically crucial Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet. Obama also wants the deployment of international observers and the start of talks between Moscow and Kiev, a US official said.
But Russia insists there are no troops from its military operating in Crimea.
“If they are the self-defence forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them. They do not receive our orders,” Lavrov told reporters.
Lavrov is likely to argue that Ukraine’s interim government is illegitimate and anti-constitutional, echoing Putin’s comments at a press conference on Tuesday.
As well as Obama’s proposals, governments including Britain are urging Lavrov to meet acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya to kickstart negotiations.
The EU’s biggest powers, France and Germany, want an “exit plan” from the crisis which could be discussed from yesterday in Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
This would include plans for a unity government, the return of Russian forces to barracks, the dissolution of extremist elements, the validity of the 2004 constitution and the importance of presidential elections. And a mission of 35 military observers will be sent to Ukraine by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in a bid to “help de-escalate tensions”, its Secretary General Lamberto Zannier said.
A US official said on Tuesday an announcement on Russian sanctions is likely this week.
The EU is set to hold an emergency summit on Ukraine today.
The flurry of diplomacy comes the day after angry public exchanges between the US and Russia which underlined the sense of frustration on both sides.
Obama said Tuesday Russia was “not fooling anyone” after it claimed it had no troops operating in Crimea and Kerry accused it of an “act of aggression” after visiting the new interim government in Kiev.
Putin had earlier insisted on his right to use “all available means” as a “last resort” in Ukraine during his first press conference since Yanukovich’s ouster.
The potential for a dangerous flare-up in Crimea and eastern Ukraine was underlined yesterday. In Donetsk, a stronghold of ex-president Yanukovich, pro-Russian protesters with bloody faces forced their way past police lines to snatch back the regional government building from which they were ousted earlier