Stalemate: Russians and Ukrainians refuse to meet

Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting over the Ukraine crisis yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty
Russian president Vladimir Putin chairs a government meeting over the Ukraine crisis yesterday. Picture: AFP/Getty
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Talks between Russia and the West over the crisis in Ukraine ended in stalemate last night, but leaders are continuing to work towards a peaceful solution in the country, US Secretary of State John Kerry has said.

Mr Kerry held high-level talks in France yesterday with counterparts including Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

Last night he told reporters there were “a number of ideas on the table”.

He added: “We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukraine, in order to see how we can help normalise the situation, stabilise it and overcome the crisis.”

But the meetings failed to produce face-to-face talks between the interim Ukrainian government and the Russian delegation. There had been hopes some moves towards a solution might be discussed between the two.

Mr Lavrov said last night that talks would continue, admitting everyone was “concerned” at events.

Earlier, he warned against western support of what Moscow views as a Ukrainian coup, saying that could encourage rebellions elsewhere.

“If we indulge those who are trying to rule our great, kind historic neighbour,” Mr Lavrov said, “we must understand that a bad example is infectious.”

Russia expressed openness to international mediation, and the talks were a “work in progress”, said a French diplomat. But a major sticking point has been Moscow’s refusal to recognise Ukraine’s new government.

“I wish I could give you some good news,” said Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, “but unfortunately it hasn’t been possible to bring together the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia.”

Yesterday’s Paris gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, telling reporters in his first comments since the Crimea crisis that he has no intention to “fight the Ukrainian people”.

Volatility, however, reigned on the ground in Ukraine.

A UN special envoy was forced to abandon a mission to Crimea after being detained and besieged inside a cafe by a hostile crowd shouting: “Russia! Russia!”

His interpreter, Vadim Kastelli, said the envoy was escorted to the airport without being given a chance to pick up his bags from his hotel and placed on the first flight out.

“I’m safe. My visit was interrupted for reasons that I cannot understand,” the Dutch diplomat said.

Last night, Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance’s co-operation with Russia was “under review” and planning for a joint operation had been suspended.

Russian warships had been due to escort a US cargo ship carrying Syrian chemical weapons destined for destruction.

He said: “We have also decided that no staff-level civilian or military meetings with Russia will take place for now.

“We have put the entire range of Nato-Russia co-operation under review. Nato foreign ministers will take decisions on this in early April.”

David Cameron, meanwhile, gave his strongest indication yet that the G8 meeting in Russia will be abandoned, as diplomatic pressure on Moscow mounted over its intervention in Ukraine.

The Prime Minister said it was “hard to see” how the gathering of the powerful group of nations could go ahead in Sochi in June, and insisted “nothing should be off the table” in terms of sanctions.

He also held talks with American president Barack Obama on the situation last night.

Mr Cameron said it was important that Europe showed “unity of purpose and a clear voice”.

“What I think we need to do is, first of all, be absolutely clear that the status quo we are faced with today, where Russian troops are outside their bases in the Crimea, is unacceptable.

“As I have said, costs and consequences need to follow from that. That is why, for instance, we have suspended preparations for the G8 meeting. Indeed, it is hard to see in these circumstances how a G8 meeting can properly go ahead.”

Elsewhere, the European Union proposed an aid package for Ukraine worth up to €11 billion (£9bn) to help “stabilise its economic and financial situation” and agreed an asset freeze on 18 people suspected of “misappropriating” state funds.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s prime minister said in his first interview since taking office that he still feared Mr Putin might attempt more land-grabs. “Mr President, stop this mess,” said Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Mr Yatsenyuk vowed to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but expressed openness to granting it more autonomy.

Ukraine’s foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia said pro-Russian citizens in Crimea must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if they want a vote on more self-rule.

Ukraine’s former prime minister – the heroine of the country’s 2004-5 Orange Revolution – called on the West to force Russia to withdraw troops from Crimea.

Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from prison two weeks ago, said that any negotiations about Ukraine’s future should be conducted directly between the United States, the European Union and Russia, and insisted no compromises should be made to appease Moscow.

“We believe that the aggressor must leave without any conditions,” Ms Tymoshenko said.