KIEV: Diplomatic efforts to calm the Ukraine crisis inched forward Monday, with Moscow saying it would consider Western proposals for talks on the standoff but insisting Crimea had the right to secede.
Britain said Russian President Vladimir Putin had promised to meet with his foreign minister Monday to discuss the possibility of creating an “international contact group” — his first indication he may be willing to take part in the talks being pushed by the US and Germany to ease the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
But that embryonic sign of diplomatic progress came against the backdrop of Putin’s recognition Sunday of Crimea’s self-declared leaders as the breakaway peninsula’s “legitimate” authorities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuked the Russian strongman for his comments, telling him Crimea’s planned March 16 referendum on joining Russia was illegal.
In phone calls with Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin in turn accused Ukraine’s new government of failing to rein in “ultra-nationalist and radical forces” in the movement that swept it to power after toppling pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in three months of protests.
Defying Western condemnation of the referendum in Crimea, where Russia has seized de facto control, Putin said the Black Sea peninsula’s pro-Russian authorities were acting “based on international law”.
But Ukraine’s new leadership got crucial backing as US President Barack Obama invited interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House on Wednesday, a meeting that will boost the credibility of the new government — still not recognised by Russia — and give the country a chance to iron out the details of crucial Western economic aid.
Ukraine could also sign a landmark agreement on closer ties with the European Union — the deal Yanukovych spurned, sparking the protests against him — as soon as March 17, the new government said.
Rival protests underline divisions
Rival protests across Ukraine on Sunday illustrated the deep divisions in the country, a culturally splintered nation of 46 million people that sits on the threshold between Russia and the European Union.
As interim president Oleksandr Turchynov led a minute of silence for slain demonstrators in Kiev, pro-Moscow activists in the eastern city of Donetsk paid tribute to a feared riot police unit accused of shooting at protesters in last month’s violence.
Pro-Russia separatists also seized the regional government headquarters in the eastern city of Lugansk and raised a Russian flag on the local security forces’ headquarters in Donetsk.
In Sevastopol, pro-Moscow militants wearing balaclavas and bullet-proof vests, joined by Cossacks wielding whips, attacked a small rally for Ukrainian unity.
Top Putin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky — a former oligarch who was Russia’s richest man before spending a decade in prison — was due to give a lecture to university students in Kiev on Monday, a day after addressing a rally on Independence Square, the epicentre of the anti-Yanukovych protests.
“They told me what the authorities did here. They did this with the agreement of the Russian leadership,” an emotional Khodorkovsky said in reference to the 100 people killed in the bloody final days of the protests.
Ukrainian authorities meanwhile accused Russia of deliberately sinking three of its own ships in a lake off the Black Sea to block the Ukrainian navy, yet another hostile move by Russian forces, which already surround Ukrainian military bases in the region.
As the crisis has escalated, Washington has imposed visa bans on targeted Russians and Ukrainians and warned of wider sanctions against Russia, while the EU has halted visa and other talks with Moscow.
Russia has warned that sanctions will have a “boomerang effect”, and a defence official said Saturday that Moscow may halt foreign inspections of its nuclear arsenal in response to “threats” from the US and NATO.
Adding to the tensions, Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom has warned debt-stricken Ukraine it may cut off gas supplies over an unpaid $1.89-billion bill — a move that could hit gas supplies across Europe.
Moscow continues to insist it has sent no extra troops to Crimea, despite parliament giving Putin the green light to do so, and says it is only deploying units from its Black Sea Fleet already stationed there. AFP