Hours before meeting his U.S. counterpart on Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on Western powers to back a proposal for a “federal” structure in Ukraine.
“If our Western partners are prepared, Russia, the U.S. and the EU will be able to set up a group of support to Ukraine and to formulate general appeals to those who rule in Ukraine now,” Lavrov told Russian state television, according to state news agency ITAR-Tass.
This would lead to talks between “all political forces without exception, naturally not armed radicals” and would result in a new constitution allowing for a “federal system of government,” he said.
“If our partners are prepared for this, we are open for broadest cooperation,” Lavrov added.
With millions of Russian speakers concentrated in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Russia backs the idea of greater regional autonomy.
This would “protect the rights of those who live in Ukraine, primarily the Russian-speaking population, which is important to us,” Lavrov said.
Lavrov met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for talks in Paris on Sunday, as both sides tried to ease tensions in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.
Kerry and Lavrov were expected to discuss efforts to defuse tensions surrounding the situation in Ukraine and the buildup of Russian troops along Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Russian forces on border
The meeting follows a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday.
“What gives me a sense we may be able to solve the situation is that Putin did call our President and suggestions were made, and there will be a meeting (between Kerry and Lavrov),” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“And there may well be the ability to solve this.”
On Saturday, Lavrov said Russia had no intention of sending troops into Ukraine — responding to Western warnings over a military buildup on the border following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum dismissed as a sham by Western governments, which say it violated Ukraine’s constitution and was held only after pro-Russian forces seized control of the Black Sea peninsula.
Russia may have 40,000 troops near its border with eastern Ukraine and another 25,000 at locations inland who are on alert and prepared to go in, two U.S. officials have told CNN. The officials said that this estimate was largely based on satellite imagery and that a firm number is difficult to assess.
Russia has said its troops are carrying out snap military exercises in the region.
The United States and the European Union have already imposed two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including visa bans and asset freezes for some of Putin’s inner circle. The West has threatened tougher sanctions targeting Russia’s economy if Moscow sends more troops to Ukraine. Russia has drawn up countersanctions, barring senior U.S. officials from entering Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the top U.S. commander in Europe back to the continent because of the “growing uncertainty in Ukraine,” Pentagon press secretary Rear. Adm. John Kirby said Sunday. Gen. Phil Breedlove was in Washington, where he was supposed to give annual testimony before Congress later this week.
“More broadly, he felt it was important for Gen. Breedlove to continue our efforts to consult with NATO allies, and to discuss specific ways to provide additional reassurance for our NATO allies in Eastern Europe,” Kirby said of Hagel’s decision to cut short Breedlove’s stay in Washington.
“While it does not foreshadow imminent military action in Ukraine, the general’s return will allow him more time to confer closely with his staff and our allies and partners, and to better advise senior leaders,” Kirby said.
By Marie-Louise Gumuchian