KIEV: The United States voiced hope for a “de-escalation” in the Ukraine crisis on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila), as the West offered billions to Kiev’s new government and the tensions in Crimea forced a UN envoy to cut short his mission.
In a bid to defuse the worst West-versus-Moscow standoff since the Cold War, US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris for the first time since the crisis erupted.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke on the phone about “possible scenarios for international co-operation” to end a confrontation that has raised fears of all-out conflict.
“We initiated a process today that we hope will eventually lead to de-escalation,” Kerry said, adding: “I’d rather be where we are today than yesterday”.
Kerry failed to make Lavrov sit down with Ukraine’s interim foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsya, but played down the refusal telling reporters that he had harbored “zero expectation” of that happening.
Kerry and Lavrov were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday, on the same day that EU leaders are gathering in Brussels for an emergency summit on Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke by telephone ahead of that summit, agreeing that Russia had violated Ukrainian sovereignty after pro-Russian forces seized control of Crimea.
Russia “has already started to pay a cost for its actions, such as reducing investor confidence in Russia,” the White House said in a statement.
Although fears of outright war have eased, tensions remain disconcertingly high in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic divided between a mainly Ukrainian-speaking west and a predominantly Russian-speaking east.
In the eastern city of Donetsk, once a stronghold of deposed former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, clashes broke out after rival rallies by thousands of protesters demonstrating for and against Moscow.
Militants were seen clubbing and punching each other and several came away with bloodied faces as pro-Russian activists broke through riot police lines chanting “Russia! Russia!” and took over the regional government, planting a Russian flag on its roof.
In the Crimean peninsula, which has been under the control of pro-Russian military units since the weekend, a UN envoy was forced to cut his mission short after being threatened by unidentified armed men.
Gunmen described as Russian soldiers also seized part of a missile facility without firing a shot in another part of the flashpoint region, which was once Russian territory and was given to Ukraine in Soviet times.
In Kiev meanwhile, a court ordered the arrest of the pro-Russian leadership of Crimea including its newly installed prime minister Sergiy Aksyonov for separatism.
The National Security and Defence Council also opened an investigation into the incident with the UN special envoy to Crimea, Robert Serry, who was stopped as he was approaching Ukrainian naval headquarters in the region.
Serry was warned “he should leave Crimea” by a group of gunmen, the UN said, adding that while physically unharmed the UN official had felt “threatened”.
He took the first flight out of the region, to Istanbul, although the United Nations said he would then return to Kiev to continue his mission.
“This is an unprecedented incident,” Andriy Parubiy, the NSDC’s secretary, was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine news agency as saying.
Crimea is an autonomous area within Ukraine but is located next to Russia and has a Russian ethnic majority. It is strategically vital, offering access to the Mediterranean within a day’s sailing.
Since Ukraine’s opposition came to power on February 22 following Yanukovych’s flight from Kiev, the peninsula has been the focus of tensions with Russia.
NATO ‘review’ for Russia
The West underlined its determination to punish Russia over its actions, with NATO announcing it was putting a slew of accords with Russia under “review” while boosting cooperation with non-member Ukraine.
The United States also reaffirmed its warning that Russia could lose its membership in the G8 group of wealthy nations, although the prospect of heavy EU or US sanctions against Russia was seen as improbable.
Putin has so far remained defiant in the crisis.
He is sticking to assertions he made Tuesday that Ukraine’s new government was illegitimate and the West was meddling. Putin and Lavrov have also denied that the pro-Kremlin forces deployed in Crimea with insignia stripped from their uniforms were Russian soldiers.
Ukraine this week called up reservists to counter what it calls a “Russian invasion” but has refrained from armed confrontation.
The crisis is quickly bringing the country to its knees financially. It has pleaded for $35 billion over the next two years to stave off default.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, on Wednesday responded with a package of loans and grants worth up to 11 billion euros ($15 billion) over the next two years for the country, which is not an EU member.
The United States has additionally announced a $1 billion loan guarantee for Ukraine. An International Monetary Fund team is also in Ukraine to size up needs.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, questions emerged about Kiev’s interim leaders. A leaked recording caught Estonia’s top diplomat discussing claims they might have played a role in the use of snipers in Kiev at the end of February which killed dozens of people.
“There is now a stronger and stronger understanding that behind the snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition,” Urmas Paet told the EU’s top diplomat Catherine Ashton in the audio leaked on YouTube.