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Last updated: March 29, 2014 2:26 am
The US and Russia have agreed to discuss a potential resolution to the Ukraine stand-off, after Vladimir Putin called Barack Obama in a move which may launch a fresh diplomatic effort to de-escalate the crisis.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops massing on the Ukraine border, Mr Obama told Mr Putin that he would support a diplomatic solution “only if [Moscow] pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”.
The White House said that the two presidents had agreed that John Kerry, the secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, would meet “to discuss the next steps”.
Mr Obama said the US had put a proposal to Russia ahead of the call and asked Mr Putin for a “concrete response”. The two leaders spoke for about an hour. Mr Obama spoke to Mr Putin from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
A Russian summary of the call confirmed the Kerry-Lavrov meeting, without specifying a time or a place, but ominously quoted Mr Putin as warning about the “continued rampage of extremists” attacking peaceful residents in Ukraine “with impunity”.
Mr Putin said the Transnistria region in Moldova, another possible target for Russian military intervention, was “experiencing a blockade” which was harming the “living conditions of residents”.
Washington declined to detail the diplomatic plan that it had put to Moscow but senior administration officials said it was based on a series of elements it floated in recent weeks after Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
They include the deployment of international monitors in Ukraine, a pullback of Russian forces, the establishment of a direct dialogue between Moscow and Kiev, supervised by the “international community”, and elections.
Speaking earlier on CBS’s This Morning while on a visit to Vatican City, Mr Obama said: “You’ve seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises. But these are not what Russia would normally be doing.”
Mr Obama said the troop movements might be no more than an effort to intimidate Kiev, but could be a precursor to other actions. “It may be that they’ve got additional plans,” he said.
The president’s comments, at the end of his trip to Europe, come in the wake of repeated warnings by western defence experts of a continuing Russian military build-up along Ukraine’s borders. General Philip Breedlove, commander of US and Nato forces in Europe, said on Sunday that Russian forces just east of Ukraine were “very, very sizeable and very, very ready”.
Yevhen Marchuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and national security chief, warned on Thursday night there were “objective signs of the preparation of large-scale offensive operations” by Russian forces on the Ukrainian-Russian border.
“For experts who are not part of the power structures and are knowledgeable about defence and security . . . it’s obvious that in the next two days Ukraine could experience the most critical moment in its history since independence,” Mr Marchuk told a press conference.
Western experts have said more than 30,000 Russian troops are poised on Ukraine’s borders, but Ukrainian officials have estimated the number at more than 100,000.
Senior officials in Kiev fear that with its annexation of Crimea largely complete, Russia may be preparing to take its military intervention in Ukraine into a new phase, involving incursions or even a full-scale invasion of the mainland
Some warn that western leaders and analysts may be complacent by assuming Mr Putin would not order an invasion because the costs and risks would be too high.
“Putin wants to go down in Russian history as a great figure. He sees that Ukraine is weak now and he plans to take advantage of that,” said one Ukrainian government adviser. “At the very least, Russia wants to ensure [Ukraine’s] presidential elections do not take place” on May 25, the adviser suggested.
Meanwhile on Friday, Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s ousted president, called for referendums to decide every region’s status within the country, amid mounting concern in Kiev that further Russian military intervention could be imminent.
The former president’s call, reported by Russian media, came as members of Right Sector, a radical rightwing fringe group, staged a second protest outside Kiev’s parliament in little more than 12 hours.
Analysts warned that both events could be used to fuel an intensive Russian media and official propaganda campaign that is portraying Ukraine as unstable, as a potential cover for Russian intervention to “restore order” to the country.
Russia has annexed the southern Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, raising fears of a return to the politics of the cold war
Mr Yanukovich, who has taken refuge in Russia, was quoted by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency on Friday as saying that only an all-Ukrainian referendum, not early presidential elections, could stabilise Ukraine and preserve its integrity.
“I call on each reasonable citizen of Ukraine: don’t let the imposters use you. Demand a referendum on the determination of the status of each region within Ukraine,” the ex-president was quoted as saying in an apparent attempt to fan separatism.
Crimea’s Russian-installed leadership this month organised a referendum in which 96.7 per cent of voters opted to join Russia.
“Everything that has happened in recent months and is happening in Ukraine is an armed coup that was conducted by the opposition with the use of arms of terrorist groups with full support of some western states,” Mr Yanukovich’s statement continued.
For experts who are not part of the power structures and are knowledgeable about defence and security . . . it’s obvious that in the next two days Ukraine could experience the most critical moment in its history since independence
- Yevhen Marchuk, a former Ukrainian defence minister and national security chief
Although Kiev and most of the country is calm, actions by Right Sector risk bolstering what Ukrainian officials call Russian “disinformation” over the threat posed by radical groups.
Up to 2,000 Right Sector members in camouflage gear picketed Ukraine’s parliament on Thursday night demanding the resignation of Arsen Avakov, the interior minister. About 100 group members returned to protest outside the parliament on Friday morning.
The group, which played a prominent role after anti-Yanukovich protests turned violent in January, is furious over the death of Oleksandr Muzychko, one of its most controversial activists, in a shootout with Ukrainian special forces this week.
Muzychko, also known as Sashko Bily, died after he reportedly opened fire on police who tried to arrest him in the western city of Rivne.
Both Muzychko and Right Sector more broadly have featured prominently in Russian media efforts to portray the toppling of Mr Yanukovich as a far-right coup, although the protest movement against the former president was broad-based.
With further pro-Russian demonstrations expected in east Ukrainian cities this weekend, Mr Marchuk, the former defence minister, warned of large numbers of so-called Russian “tourists in plain clothes” around Donetsk.
He warned that further Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine might come not through a mass offensive, but could be organised by a “large group of people without uniforms, but armed with automatic weapons”.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, said on Thursday that between 500 and 700 Russians were being denied entry to Ukraine daily, on suspicion of being provocateurs or having military links.
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