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U.S. sees improvement in Ukrainian situation

Tabs mark the many subject areas in the notebook of Secretary of State John Kerry as he speaks to reporters about the Ukraine crisis following his meetings with other foreign ministers in Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.  (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

Tabs mark the many subject areas in the notebook of Secretary of State John Kerry as he speaks to reporters about the Ukraine crisis following his meetings with other foreign ministers in Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014, at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris. (AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

The Obama administration claimed progress yesterday toward resolving a Cold War-style standoff with Russia over its military incursion in Ukraine, even as the Pentagon moved to reassure nervous NATO allies by positioning fighter jets closer to Russia.

“I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after a chaotic day of diplomatic outreach to Russia. He added that he did not want to raise false hopes of an immediate end to the confrontation, the worst with Russia since Russian forces moved into Georgia six years ago.

The United States and Britain appeared to maneuver throughout the day to draw Russia into talks with Ukraine’s acting foreign minister. The Ukrainian diplomat, Andrii Deshchytsia, traveled to Paris on Kerry’s plane Tuesday in hopes of beginning diplomatic talks that the United States and Britain see as a way for Russia to back away from confrontation.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters yesterday that many foreign ministers gathered in Paris for an unrelated meeting on Lebanon were urging Lavrov to sit down with the Ukrainian diplomat.

The goal is to “bring the Russians into a diplomatic process,” Hague said, “at least a start of it.”

Deshchytsia spent much of yesterday waiting for a meeting that never came, and Kerry denied during a late evening news conference that such a face-to-face had ever been the goal.

“I had no expectation, zero expectation,” Kerry said, adding that Deshchytsia was present because it would have been “inappropriate” for world powers to discuss Ukraine’s fate without him.

The East-West standoff over Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has escalated in the days since a pro-Russian government collapsed and former opposition leaders took over. They have promised elections in May. Russia does not recognize the temporary government in Kiev and insists that fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is Ukraine’s legitimate leader.

The United States claims that thousands of Russian troops have flowed into Crimea in the past several days. The Black Sea area has a majority Russian-speaking population and many there identify strongly with Russia. The Russian government has said those residents’ rights are threatened by what it considers an illegitimate “coup” in Kiev.

Russia has made no move to withdraw forces to their bases in Crimea, where Russia maintains a naval outpost. Ukraine is unlikely to fight to keep Crimea, however, and neither the United States nor its allies appear willing to commit military forces.

NATO announced Tuesday that it would strengthen ties with Ukraine by stepping up involvement with the country’s “civilian and military leadership.” Although Ukraine is not part of the 28-member alliance, NATO also said it would help to strengthen the Ukrainian army with joint training and exercises.

The United States followed up with word that it would move additional F-15 fighter jets and a refueling tanker from Britain to Lithuania at the request of Baltic nations that are members of the alliance originally formed as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said that NATO was reviewing the “entire range” of its cooperation with Russia, and that staff-level and military meetings with Russian counterparts would no longer take place.

The Obama administration is especially keen to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a face-saving way out of a confrontation with the West that is building toward U.S. and possible European sanctions on Russia.

The United States has made Russia a key partner in diplomatic overtures involving Syria and Iran, and wants to avoid further rupture. Obama is offering to consider Russia’s concerns over the future of Russian speakers in Ukraine “point by point,” the administration said, and proposes a team of international monitors in the flashpoint Crimean Peninsula.

Kerry and Hague first invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to a meeting yesterday morning in Paris with the Ukrainian official. The Russian did not attend.

“Regrettably missing one member,” Kerry said at the start of the morning session of nations that signed a 1994 agreement for post-Soviet Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons.

“This is my first trip to such an important venue where the Ukrainian future, maybe the future of the region, will be decided,” Deshchytsia said. “We want to keep neighborly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully.”

Lavrov did turn up later in Paris, where foreign ministers were gathered to discuss Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis. Those talks were largely overtaken by the Ukraine crisis, which was the subject of Kerry and Lavrov’s first face-to-face discussion since street protests in Kiev turned deadly last month.

At the start of the meeting at the home of Russia’s ambassador to France, Lavrov joked that he had one more staff member on his side of the table than Kerry had on his. Kerry added a military adviser, then opened a thick briefing book.

“Big file,” Lavrov observed dryly.

“That is not all you,” Kerry replied.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry tweeted a photo of Kerry and Lavrov sitting across from one another at the meeting table, but looking in opposite directions. The Russian-language caption noted that although the two do not always see eye to eye, communication is important.

“We had a long day of discussions on Ukraine “ Lavrov told reporters as he left a later session at the French Foreign Ministry. “We agreed to continue those discussions in the days to come to see how best we can help stabilize, normalize the situation and overcome the crisis.”

Asked whether he had met his Ukrainian counterpart, Lavrov replied, “Who is it?”

“I didn’t see anyone,” he added.

Kerry said he and Lavrov considered several ways to lower tensions, though he gave no details, and said intensive discussion will continue.

“Don’t assume that we did not . . . have serious conversations which produced creative and affirmative ideas and possibilities for how we can resolve this,” Kerry said. “We have a number of ideas on the table.”

He reiterated the U.S. position that Russia’s military movement into Crimea is unacceptable. Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be preserved, he said. Kerry visited the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Tuesday to demonstrate support for the new leadership there, and to make a point to Moscow that its military move would not go unchallenged.

Despite Kerry’s entreaties for calm, the State Department tweaked Putin a bit yesterday, releasing a statement concerning “10 False Claims About Ukraine” attributed to the Russian leader.

Standoffs continued yesterday between Russian and Ukrainian warships in a Crimean port. The United Nations envoy for Ukraine, Robert Serry, turned back from a planned fact-finding trip to Crimea after an altercation with armed men and a pro-Russian crowd.

Russian officials continued to deny that their forces were spread out across the Crimean Peninsula. Lavrov, speaking in Madrid before he arrived in Paris, said yesterday that all the armed men who arrive in Russian troop transports, with Russian plates, are local self-defense militias.

In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu denied yesterday that any of his troops had strayed from their bases in Crimea, despite videos and photos that suggested otherwise.

“No, absolutely not,” he responded when asked by reporters if there were any Russian troops in Crimea outside their own bases.

Hague said the West is insisting that Russia’s military pull back to its Black Sea base as a first step, but he did not mandate a Thursday deadline as European diplomats had earlier warned.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said yesterday that economic sanctions against Russia will be discussed by the European Union when its leaders meet Thursday. “We cannot accept, we members of the international community, a country that invades another,” Fabius said on his Twitter account.

The European Union will consider sanctions against Russia if there is no calming of the Ukraine crisis, he added.

In Brussels, the European Union gave preliminary approval to a $15 billion aid package of loans and grants to Ukraine in the coming years, on top of a U.S. announcement Tuesday of $1 billion in energy loan guarantees.

The E.U. package is “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms oriented Government in rebuilding a stable and prosperous future for Ukraine,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

The package would be phased in over several years, and would be partially conditioned on reforms to Ukraine’s tanking economy. Kiev estimates it needs $35 billion in international rescue loans over the next two years.

The package is to be formally approved Thursday, along with sanctions on 18 Ukrainians accused of looting the country’s treasury.

The aid is geared to help modernize Ukraine’s transit system to use natural gas, much of which comes from Russia.

In what may be a jibe to Moscow, the E.U. package would also speed the process for allowing Ukrainians to travel to the 28-nation bloc without visas. Russia has been seeking that accommodation for many years.

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