WASHINGTON – The top U.S. and Russian diplomats met Sunday evening in Paris amid hopes for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over control of troubled Ukraine.
As U.S. officials continued to voice concern at the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine's border, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met to trade ideas on how Ukraine should be governed following the ouster of its pro-Russian leadership.
Russia formally annexed the Russian-dominated Crimean peninsula on March 21, one month after the Ukrainian opposition toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich. The interim government in Kiev and its Western allies fear Moscow is maneuvering to try to win control over more, or all, of the country.
Following a brief meeting between Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry met with Lavrov at the residence of Russia's ambassador to France.
Earlier Sunday, Lavrov insisted in a Russian television interview that Russia has "absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine's borders."
Russian President Vladimir Putin called President Obama on Friday to explore ways to ease the crisis, the worst East-West standoff since the end of the Cold War. Putin and Obama instructed their chief diplomats to seek a way out of the standoff. Obama has asked for a written Russian response to a proposal Kerry presented to Lavrov last week.
But the two countries have very different goals. The Obama administration has proposed a disarming of private militias, the entry of international monitors to oversee treatment of minority groups, and direct Ukrainian-Russian talks. It is also demanding a pullback of Russian forces at the border.
Russia, which considers the interim Ukrainian government illegitimate, doesn't want direct talks with Kiev. It would like to see international negotiations to create a decentralized Ukrainian government that would give powerful leverage to Moscow and its ethnic Russian allies.
Administration officials first described Putin's Friday call as an encouraging development. But they grew more cautious after the Kremlin described the conversation in ways suggesting Moscow was not yet willing to give ground and might be laying the groundwork to move more troops into the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, on Ukraine's western border.
Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" that, to observers, the 40,000-troop Russian force near Ukraine's border "looks like an invasion force." Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, insisted that the troops were present only for "a normal exercise."