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U.S., Russia agree to more Ukraine talks

Kerry, counterpart seek to defuse crisis

The United States and Russia reached no agreement yesterday on how to defuse the crisis over Russia’s annexation of a Ukrainian territory and its massing of troops for possible further moves against the neighboring country, but they agreed to continue talking.

Tens of thousands of Russian forces poised near eastern Ukraine are “creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine” and raising questions about Russia’s next move and its commitment to diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry said after several hours of talks with Russia’s top diplomat.

“We have some ideas. We have proposals that both sides made,” Kerry said, but he acknowledged that the United States cannot force Russia to pull back its forces.

“The troops are in Russia. They are on Russian soil,” Kerry told reporters. “The question is not one of right or legality; the question is one of strategic appropriateness and whether it is smart at this moment in time to have that number of troops massed on the border when you’re trying to send a message that you want to de-escalate.”

It was clear that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had made no promises about pulling troops back from the border and that Russia has no intention of withdrawing from Crimea, the strategic Black Sea territory it annexed two weeks ago.

But both nations support diplomatic solutions and “meeting the needs of the Ukrainian population,” Kerry said.

Lavrov said at a separate briefing that the discussion was “very, very constructive” and that he and Kerry agreed to work with the Ukrainian government to improve rights for Russian-speaking Ukrainians and disarm “irregular forces and provocateurs.”

The United States and Russia were seeking to calm a bitter confrontation that has included the toughest U.S. economic penalties on Russia since the end of the Cold War.

At stake is the rising war of words between the West and Russia over the military incursion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The United States does not recognize the annexation, which is unlikely to be reversed soon, if at all.

Kerry and Lavrov’s talks were focused less on Crimea and more on preventing further confrontation. For the United States, that means stopping Russian military moves where they are.

The Obama administration believes that the sanctions are biting and that Russia is trying to prevent further economic penalties. The United States and the European Union have threatened further measures if Russia invades eastern Ukraine.

Also yesterday, the Pentagon said the top U.S. general in Europe has been sent back early from a trip to Washington, D.C., because of Russia’s “lack of transparency” about troop movements along the Ukraine border.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, who is both NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe and the head of the U.S. military’s European Command, arrived in Europe on Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before Congress this week.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “made the decision Friday evening amidst growing uncertainty in Ukraine,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.

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