Putin, Obama maneuver over crisis in Ukraine. Whose advantage?

Thousands of Russian troops are poised along Ukraine's border as Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meet in Paris, seeking to defuse the crisis. To many, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have the upper hand.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before the start of their meeting at the Russian Ambassador's residence about the situation in Ukraine, in Paris Sunday.

The US-Russia stand-off over Ukraine grew tenser Sunday as both sides maneuvered for position and the two nations’ top diplomats met once again to discuss resolution of the direst situation between the two countries since the end of the Cold War.

At this point, there has been no sign of give on either side.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak said Russia has “no interest in crossing the border” into Ukraine, despite the 40,000 troops massed there for what he called a “normal exercise.”

But Mr. Kislyak also said that Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region following a “referendum” there is permanent. "Crimea is a part of Russian Federation," he declared.

In response to that Russian troop buildup (which some sources put as high as 100,000 troops), the Pentagon announced Sunday that the top US general in Europe has been sent back early from a trip to Washington in what the Pentagon on Sunday called a prudent step given Russia's "lack of transparency" about troop movements across the border with Ukraine.

Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who is both NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the head of the US military's European Command, arrived in Europe Saturday evening, Reuters reported. He had been due to testify before Congress this week.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel considered Gen. Breedlove's early return "the prudent thing to do, given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border," a Pentagon spokesman said.

Michael McFaul, until recently US Ambassador to Russia, finds the situation “very dangerous” with the US in a relatively weak position.

“I think if you look at it from the Russian perspective … they're pivoting, they're changing the subject,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, referencing the Russian readout of President Vladimir Putin’s telephone call to President Obama on Friday. “They're saying, okay, Crimea is done. We've taken that. Now let's start negotiating about the Ukrainian constitution. Let's start negotiating about the autonomy of places like Donetsk [in eastern Ukraine].”

“As President Kennedy said very famously during the Berlin crisis, he was not going to negotiate about the freedom of Berlin under the guise of what's mine is mine and what's yours is negotiable,” Amb. McFaul said. “This feels a little bit like that. They're changing the subject to talk about what they want, not what we want to talk about.”

In its public rhetoric and diplomacy, the Obama administration has not conceded Crimea to Russia.

But on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said the facts on the ground lead her to conclude that the issue is “done,” and that any discussions need to move beyond Crimea.

Acknowledging that the Russian troop buildup “looks like an invasion force” to some observers, she said, “What gives me a sense that we may be able to solve the situation is the fact that Putin did call our president and suggestions were made.” Chief among those were that Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would meet, beginning Sunday in Paris.

Speaking on Russian television before meeting with Kerry at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Paris, Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine's stability and neutrality.

"We can't see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement," Lavrov said, adding that he understood the United States was open to the idea.

US officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine's governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. However, they are exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R), Sen. Feinstein’s counterpart in the House of Representatives, has a different view of Putin’s intentions.

Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” he said that beyond the current troop buildup along the Russia-Ukraine border, Putin is moving troops in northern Georgia and planting intelligence officers in Ukraine.

He said Russian troops in the northern region of Georgia, known as South Ossetia, are on the move, perhaps to go into Armenia or toward the Baltic Sea .“There’s no way I’d take this as any other way than [Putin] is working for a land bridge,” Rep. Rogers said.

“He’s is absolutely not looking for a way out,” Rogers said. “I doubt Putin called [Obama] because he thought he wasn’t in the best spot in that particular conversation.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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