UNITED States Secretary of State John Kerry diverted his homebound flight last night and was headed for hastily arranged talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in an attempt to resolve the crisis gripping Ukraine.
Halfway home from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Kerry landed in Shannon, Ireland, for a refuelling stop, then decided to turn his plane around and headed to Paris to meet Lavrov this evening at the Russian ambassador’s residence.
The decision came after Russian president Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama spoke in a late-night phone call to discuss a diplomatic solution drawn up by the Americans.
The White House said Putin called Obama over a proposal which Kerry presented to his Russian counterpart Lavrov earlier last week.
“President Obama noted that the Ukrainian government continues to take a restrained and de-escalatory approach to the crisis and is moving ahead with constitutional reform and democratic elections, and urged Russia to support this process and avoid further provocations, including the build-up of forces on its border with Ukraine,” an official at the White House said. It was stated that the leaders had spoken for an hour.
Kremlin officials said in their account of the conversation that Putin talked about action by extremists, such as the ultra-nationalist Right Sector, in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilise the situation”.
They said Putin also pointed out that there is an “effective blockade” of Moldova’s separatist region of Trans-Dniester, where Russia has troops. There have been fears in Ukraine that Russia could use its forces in Trans-Dniester to begin an invasion.
The conversation followed demands by Ukraine’s ousted leader Viktor Yanukovich for a nationwide referendum which would serve Moscow’s purpose of turning the country into a loosely knit federation.
Yanukovich, who fled to Russia after three months of protests, raised the threat
of more unrest in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces, where many resent the new pro-European Union government.
Deep divisions between Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions, where many favour close ties with Moscow, and the Ukrainian-speaking west, where most want to integrate into Europe, continue to fuel tensions.
The Crimean peninsula, where ethnic Russians are a majority, voted this month to secede from Ukraine before Russia formally annexed it – a move that western countries have condemned as being illegitimate.
There has been growing talk of similar votes in other Ukrainian regions with large Russian populations, which threatens to split one of Europe’s largest states.
The one vote that has been scheduled is a presidential election on 25 May.
Former world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko yesterday announced he will not run for Ukrainian president and will instead throw his support behind billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko when he goes up against former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Klitschko, 42, told a congress of his centre-right Udar party that he instead planned to run for mayor of Kiev.
His endorsement will prove a valuable boost for Poroshenko, known as the Chocolate King after making his fortune in confectionery, who also played a prominent role in the months-long protest movement that led to the toppling of pro-Russian president Yanukovich.
Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, who was released from prison last month following what many regarded as politically motivated charges, are both pro-European Union candidates concerned at the grip Russia has over the former Soviet republic.
“The only way to win is by nominating a single candidate from the democratic ranks,” Klitschko said. “This should be a candidate with the greatest support from the people.”
Poroshenko, a former foreign minister, already leads in the polls for the presidential election and is seen as likely to beat Tymoshenko, who declared last week that she will “be the candidate of Ukrainian unity”.
Poroshenko announced his candidacy to supporters on Friday evening in his hometown of Vinnytsia while holding up a religious icon of the Madonna and child.
The deadline for new candidates to enter the race is today.
Poroshenko was leading by a wide margin at 36 per cent support among likely voters, according to a survey conducted in mid-March by the Socis polling organisation.
Klitschko was trailing in second place with 13 per cent and Tymoshenko was polling about 12 per cent.