WASHINGTON — The top U.S. and Russian diplomats agreed Sunday to work with Ukrainian government officials to ease the crisis triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but remained far apart on other key points after four hours of negotiations in Paris.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the meeting constructive. Lavrov’s remarks suggested that Moscow may now be more willing to work with the interim Ukrainian government, which it has previously dismissed as illegitimate.
Both men indicated that the discussions would include how to govern Ukraine, which is split between regions that tend to be pro-Western or pro-Russian.
Lavrov demanded that the interim government in Kiev rewrite the constitution to allow provinces broad autonomy, but Kerry insisted that any such decisions could be made only by the Ukrainian authorities, who ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich one month ago.
“In the end, Ukrainians are going to have to make that decision,” said Kerry, who met with Lavrov at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Paris.
The U.S. diplomat also pushed for Russia to remove the 40,000 troops it has massed on Ukraine’s border, saying that “any solution” must involve a pullback. But Lavrov, who has contended that the forces are only conducting routine military exercises, showed no willingness to do so.
The United States and Russia have been at odds since Russian troops seized, then annexed, the Ukrainian region of Crimea, where a majority of the population speaks Russian. Western governments fear that Moscow is seeking control over at least parts of Ukraine, a country that Russia has long viewed as part of its sphere of influence.
U.S. officials have put forth a plan that calls for the disarming of private militias, the entry of international monitors to supervise treatment of minority groups and direct Ukrainian-Russian talks.
Russia has been urging international negotiations to create a decentralized Ukrainian government, a move that could give powerful leverage to Moscow and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east who tend to favor ties with Russia.
Kerry said he and Lavrov did not discuss the proposal to give more autonomy to Ukrainian provinces because it would be inappropriate to do so without Ukrainian officials present. “The United States is consulting with Ukraine at every step of this process, and we will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table,” he said.
The two sides did discuss Russia’s huge troop presence on Ukraine’s eastern border. U.S. officials have expressed fears that the buildup may be the prelude to an intervention aimed at seizing parts of eastern Ukraine, or the breakaway Transnistria region to the west of Ukraine in Moldova.
Kerry said a top goal of the meeting was to set up a diplomatic process for resolving the dispute, which has led to the sharpest East-West tensions since the end of the Cold War.
Lavrov said Russia had agreed to work with “the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian people in the broadest sense” to deal with issues of minority and language rights, the disarmament of armed groups, constitutional reforms and elections, according to Russian news agencies.
Kerry and Lavrov met at the direction of President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who discussed the Ukraine crisis in a telephone call Friday. Obama had asked that Lavrov reply in writing to the proposal that Kerry has been promoting in recent weeks.
Administration officials first described the call, which was initiated by Putin, as an encouraging development. But they grew more cautious after the Kremlin described the conversation in ways suggesting that Moscow was not yet willing to give ground and might be laying the foundation to move troops into Transnistria.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that, to informed observers, the Russian troops near Ukraine’s border look “like an invasion force.”
Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, insisted on ABC’s “This Week” that the troops were present only for “a normal exercise.”