The profound West-Russian discord on Ukraine was accentuated rather than eased by the six hours of last-ditch talks held by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London Friday, March 14. Later, they addressed reporters separately. The Russian minister stood by the Kremlin’s refusal to call off the Crimean referendum taking place two days hence. Before its outcome is known, he said, President Vladimir Putin was not ready to reach any decisions on the next steps with regard to the Ukraine crisis.
Secretary Kerry declared there would be “costs” – sanctions – if Moscow “established facts on the ground.” He branded the referendum “illegal” and a “violation of international law.”
Lavrov did not say how Russia would respond to sanctions except to say they were counterproductive to mutual and business interests.
“We are deeply concerned by Russian military concentrations in Crimea and around Ukraine and they need to be reduced,” Kerry said in his remarks. He did not disclose how Lavrov responded to this concern when asked by a reporter.
This point is critical in view of the concentration of 22,000 Russian soldiers in the Crimean peninsula (according to US intelligence figures) and a similar number engaged in military exercises in southern and western Russian districts near the Ukrainian border.
After the two foreign ministers agreed that they shared no “single vision” on Ukraine’s future, the focus moves to the day after the Crimean referendum.
The European Union has scheduled a meeting for Monday, March 17, to approve sanctions against Russia.
Lavrov stated: “We must respect the will of the Crimean people in the forthcoming referendum.”
The United States and its partners say in advance that they will not accept its outcome and stand by their recognition of the interim government in Kiev.
Kerry said that he and President Obama respected Russia’s legitimate historical, cultural, and strategic interests in Ukraine and the rights of the Russian-speaking population for protection. But those interests and rights can only be realized by means of the multilateral structures and norms governing international relations since World War II , Kerry stressed. And only in a way that upholds Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty under the interim government of Kiev.
Lavrov indicated that Russia too had proposals for averting the resurgence of a cold war with the United States:
1. Moscow and Washington led by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin and European leaders must sustain contacts, he said. Russia was not closing the door exchanges contnuing on other world issues, a reference to the proposal Putin put before Obama two weeks ago, not to allow the Ukraine issue to interfere with their cooperation on other global issues.
2. Crimea should be awarded the same right to self-determination as Kosovo, which is an independent state although it is not recognized by the UN and a number of countries. Lavrov also put forward the example of the Indian Ocean Comoro Islands off the African coast, which split last year in a referendum when the island of Mayotte decided to break away and join France. It gained the recognition of the African Union as a French province.
3. Regarding relations between Moscow and Kiev, Lavrov said: “We have never stopped contacts at the level of foreign ministers” and are capable of dealing with all issues directly “without international structures.” He suggested that Russian-Ukrainian discussions should continue and take place on neutral ground such as the Belarusian capital of Minsk.