Russia and US fail to reach breakthrough on Ukraine
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Moscow said on Friday it would respect the result of Crimea’s referendum on Sunday on whether to join Russia, after last-ditch talks between Russia and the US to ease the crisis in Ukraine failed to reach a breakthrough.
Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, said after meeting John Kerry, his US counterpart, in London that they did not have a “common vision” on how to de-escalate the crisis. He stressed that Crimea was “immeasurably important” to Russia.
“It means more for Russia than the Falklands does for the UK or the Comoros for France,” he said at a press conference after five hours of talks between the two ministers. “We will respect the choice of the peoples of Crimea.”
Russian troops have occupied Crimea, and helped install a new pro-Russian prime minister who has called a plebiscite on Sunday on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
The two men’s comments dimmed any remaining hopes in the EU and US that the Crimean referendum could be postponed, or Russia persuaded not to follow it by moving rapidly to annex the peninsula.
Their talks took place against a background of escalating tensions as thousands of heavily armed Russian troops massed near Ukraine’s eastern border for what were described as exercises.
Mr Lavrov declined to say whether Russia would immediately move to absorb Crimea, adding that no decision would be made on how to proceed until after the referendum.
Describing his five-hour conversation with Mr Lavrov as “candid”, Mr Kerry said the international community considered the referendum illegal and Russia would face “costs” if it went ahead.
If Russia carried out threats to start intervening, too, in eastern Ukraine, that would “beg an even greater response”, Mr Kerry added.
The EU and US are preparing to impose sanctions including asset freezes and visa bans on Russian officials on Monday if the Crimean referendum goes ahead.
President Barack Obama said he continued to “hope there’s a diplomatic solution to be found”.
“But the US and Europe stand united, not only in [their] message about Ukrainian sovereignty, but also that there will be consequences if in fact that sovereignty continues to be violated,” he added.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin had reiterated, in a meeting with UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, that the Crimean referendum “complies entirely with international legal norms and the UN Charter”.
Moscow slammed a draft resolution submitted by the US to the UN Security Council which calls for non-recognition of the outcome of the Crimean poll.
Russia’s foreign ministry earlier reiterated that it was ready to intervene in eastern Ukraine to protect Russian-speaking citizens there after clashes between rival demonstrators in Donetsk on Thursday night left at least one pro-Kiev demonstrator dead and dozens of other people injured.
Mr Lavrov told reporters Russia had no plans to intervene in other parts of Ukraine. But he insisted the interim government that took power in Kiev after last month’s overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich, the president, had not taken proper steps to restore order in the country.
Mr Putin was granted permission by Russia’s upper house of parliament on March 1 to use its army to “restore peace” to Ukraine.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the clashes in Donetsk showed the “leadership in Kiev does not control the situation in the country”.
“Russia is conscious of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take these people under its protection,” it added.
Moscow accused “rightwing radicals” of sparking the violence in Donetsk – a claim contradicted by several witness and internet video accounts. One local witness suggested the violence had been orchestrated by “Russian tourists” bussed in to Donetsk from Russia.
Rinat Akhmetov, the Donetsk-based billionaire who is one the most powerful men in eastern Ukraine, on Friday called for calm.
“No politics can justify victims, and what happened is unacceptable,” he said. “We must act unemotionally, We must be prudent and tolerant to each other. We must respect different views. We should stop sorting out relationships in the streets and squares as it can take lives and bring suffering.”
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in Moscow, Geoff Dyer and Richard McGregor in Washington and John Aglionby in London
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