PARIS – US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Sunday for suddenly arranged talks in Paris as diplomatic efforts to resolve Cold War-style tensions over Ukraine’s crisis gained momentum.
The diplomatic push comes amid alarm over Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, fanning fears it plans to seize more territory following its lightning annexation of Crimea.
In a first effort to temper the worst East-West impasse in decades, Russian leader Vladimir Putin phoned US President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss either sides’ proposals in what has become a tug-of-war over Ukraine’s future.
Lavrov later sought to ease diplomatic tensions by vowing his country had no intention of sending in what Kiev estimates are 100,000 troops gathered on Ukraine’s borders.
“We have absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border,” he told Russian state television. “We (Russia and the West) are getting closer in our positions.”
At the same time his deputy Sergei Ryabkov pointed out there was still “no single plan”, but that both sides felt there was enough on the table to merit further discussion and Kerry changed course on a flight back from Riyadh to meet with Lavrov in the French capital.
Moscow’s efforts to keep the ex-Soviet state in its orbit prompted months of bloody street protests in Ukraine by citizens demanding a European future, resulting in the overthrow of Kremlin ally president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
While the tear gas and street battles in Kiev have given way to diplomatic wrangling, the fight for the presidency is in full swing ahead of snap polls organised for May 25, expected to seal the country’s pro-West course.
The current frontrunner is billionaire chocolate baron Petro Poroshenko, boosted by the support of boxing champion-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko who bowed out of the race to boost the tycoon’s chances.
“We have to nominate a single candidate representing the democratic forces,” Klitschko told a congress of his UDAR (Punch) party on Saturday.
“This has to be a candidate who enjoys the strongest public support. Today, this candidate in my opinion is Petro Poroshenko.”
Poroshenko was the only Ukrainian oligarch to openly back the protests against Yanukovych, and will likely face a feisty campaign from former premier Yulia Tymoshenko, a highly controversial doyenne of Ukraine’s political theatre.
With his government experience from time spent in several cabinet portfolios and links to business, many see Poroshenko as a capable pair of hands to stem an economy in free fall and unite a country fractured between Moscow and Kiev.
Lavrov said Russia wants a federal solution for Ukraine which implies greater autonomy for Russian speakers in the east and south, and for Kiev to commit to not joining the NATO military alliance.
Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea sparked fears it would target other heavily Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine and the Moscow-backed separatist territory of Transdniestr in Moldova.
Putin told Obama the problems surrounding the breakaway Moldovan region should be solved not by force but by talks in the “5+2” format of Moldova, Transdniestr, the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine, with the EU and US as observers.
Meanwhile as the rest of Europe moved their clocks one hour forward for summer on Sunday, Crimeans jumped two hours forward into the timezone of their new masters in Moscow.
The peninsula voted overwhelmingly to join Russia earlier this month, after the downfall of Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow government in Kiev. However the referendum and Russia’s rapid absorption of the region is seen as illegal by much of the international community.
The referendum was also largely boycotted by the ethnic Tatar minority who voted Saturday to push for self-rule in their historic homeland.
However representatives of the Muslim community of about 300,000 people were torn on how to engage with the new authorities and go about securing this autonomy.
Russia’s annexation prompted the United States and European Union to slap Moscow with sanctions, piling on economic pressure.
Moody’s put Russia’s credit rating on review for a possible downgrade on Friday, saying the current crisis “could significantly dampen investor sentiment for several years to come”.