WASHINGTON – The top U.S. and Russian diplomats agreed Sunday to work with Ukrainian officials to ease the crisis triggered by Russia's decision to annex Crimea, but remained far apart on most other key points after four hours of talks in Paris.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the meeting constructive and said they wanted to continue talks to resolve how the polarized country should be governed.
But while Lavrov demanded that the interim government in Kiev rewrite the constitution to allow provinces to exercise broad autonomy, Kerry insisted that any such decisions could only be made by the authorities who ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich one month ago.
"In the end, Ukrainians are going to have to make that decision," Kerry said.
The U.S. diplomat also pushed for Russia to redeploy the 40,000 Russian forces that are now massed near Ukraine's border. But Lavrov, who has contended that the troops are only conducting normal military exercises, showed no willingness to do so.
"We talked very seriously and at length about the impact of the massing of troops," Kerry said.
Russia formally annexed the Russian-dominated Crimean peninsula on March 21, one month after the Ukrainian opposition toppled 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.
After 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 situation.
But the two countries have very different goals. The Obama administration has proposed a disarming of irregular forces, the entry of international monitors to oversee treatment of minority groups, and direct Ukrainian-Russian talks.
Russia has balked at direct talks with Kiev. It would like to see international negotiations to create a decentralized Ukrainian government that would cede more power to regions such as eastern Ukraine, where many residents speak Russian and feel allied to Moscow.
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 foundation to move more troops into the breakaway Transnistria region of Moldova, on Ukraine's western border.