- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Obama administration called on Russia on Wednesday to allow international monitors into the Crimean region of Ukraine, as the administration sought to broker a diplomatic solution to the tense standoff over the occupation by Russian troops.

In high-level talks in Paris, Secretary of State John F. Kerry urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to withdraw the troops from neighboring Ukraine and accept monitors to ensure the rights of ethnic Russians are protected. The two sides reported no breakthrough, but agreed to keep talking.

“I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,” Mr. Kerry said of the impasse.

But in a sign of the difficulties that remain, the foreign minister of the new Ukrainian government did not take part in the talks. Russia hasn’t recognized the interim government in Kiev, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying it is illegitimate.

The diplomacy went on as Russia rebuffed demands to pull back its forces from Ukraine, and tensions in the region remained high. A U.N. envoy was forced to abandon a mission to the region after encounters with pro-Russia militiamen and an angry crowd. Russian and Ukrainian warships faced off in Crimea.

CBS News reported Wednesday night that Russia was sending more troops to Crimea, although Russian forces were no longer surrounding certain Ukrainian military bases.


SEE ALSO: Obama tells Putin stop “meddling” in Ukraine and withdraw troops from Crimea


In Brussels, the European Union offered a proposal to provide a $15 billion aid package of loans and grants to Ukraine, on top of a U.S. announcement Tuesday of $1 billion in loan guarantees.

NATO announced Wednesday it is suspending collaboration with Russia, including planning for the first joint NATO-Russian mission, in an attempt to “de-escalate tensions.”

Russia continued to insist that it has no troops in southern Ukraine. Mr. Lavrov told reporters that the soldiers who have confronted Ukrainian forces are local “self-defense units.”

“We give them no orders. They take no orders from us,” Mr. Lavrov said.
He also said the military personnel of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet are back in their deployment sites.

Russian forces remain in effective control of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula where Russia has a large naval base, in the standoff with Ukrainian forces loyal to the new interim government in Kiev.

With Russia still not budging on the ground, the Obama administration tried to exert pressure on Mr. Putin on a variety of fronts, including with NATO. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Wednesday that the administration plans to expand military cooperation with Poland and Baltic states to show “support” for U.S. allies after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

Mr. Hagel said the moves will include expanded aviation training in Poland and increasing the U.S. role in NATO’s air-policing mission over Baltic countries.

“This is a time for wise, steady and firm leadership,” Mr. Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Russia has been warned that possible sanctions will be on the agenda when European Union leaders meet Thursday in Brussels, if no progress is made in ending the high-stakes showdown.

But an attempted crackdown could prove painful for more than just Russia. In a tit-for-tat move, Russian lawmakers are drafting a law that would allow Russia to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions are slapped on Moscow, Russian state media reported.

Mr. Kerry said that “everybody is better served” by finding a diplomatic solution to the impasse.

“I was encouraged today that Russia indicated that they would prefer to see us to find that path,” Mr. Kerry said.

President Obama spoke Wednesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the crisis, with both leaders saying Russia is already paying a cost for its actions, such as “reducing investor confidence.”

“The leaders expressed their grave concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and both noted that the current circumstances are unacceptable,” the White House said.

In a sign of heightened tensions in eastern Ukraine, a pro-Russian crowd in Donetsk recaptured the regional administration building they had occupied before being ejected by police.

The West is pushing for Russia to return troops to barracks, accept international monitors in Crimea and Ukraine, and negotiate a solution to the crisis through a “contact group” probably under the auspices of a pan-European security body.

Britain said it would join other European Union countries in freezing the assets of 18 Ukrainians suspected of misappropriating state funds, and Canada announced economic sanctions on senior members of the government of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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