Crisis in Ukraine: After day of Paris talks, a dramatic change in tone

Secretary Kerry said the intensive talks in Paris produced a commitment from all sides to resolve the Ukraine crisis through dialogue. 'I'd rather be where we are today than yesterday,' he said.

Alain Jocard/AP/Pool
French President Francois Hollande, left, US Secretary of State John Kerry, center, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, right, talk together while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, background left, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov background right, talk together behind them during a break of a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Wednesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry ended a day of intense discussions Wednesday with hints that a diplomatic solution to Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea province could emerge in the coming days.

Repeatedly using the word “de-escalate” to describe the chief aim of diplomats – including Russians – gathered in Paris to address the Ukraine crisis, Mr. Kerry said the primary accomplishment of the day’s talks was a commitment from all sides in the conflict to try to resolve the standoff through dialogue.

Calling Wednesday “the beginning of a negotiation,” Kerry said, “I’d rather be where we are today than yesterday.”

The tone was indeed different from just a day earlier, when Kerry accused Russia of fabricating pretexts to justify future military incursions it might make into eastern Ukraine. Fears of waking up to a deeper Russian intervention appear to have subsided.

The danger that Kerry and the West face, however, is that every day that “promising” diplomacy continues, Russia’s hold on Crimea grows tighter – and risks becoming an accepted reality.

Appearing to recognize this risk, Kerry insisted that the US and its partners “will not allow the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and [allow that violation] to go unanswered.” 

But the turn of events around the Ukraine crisis is already starting to have a familiar ring, many foreign policy experts note. They point out that Russia’s invasion of two pro-Russia provinces of Georgia in 2008 originally met with stiff Western opposition – opposition that eventually eroded away to grudging acceptance.  

Kerry, who met three times Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said he would meet again in Rome Thursday with Mr. Lavrov, and that he had “something concrete” to take back to President Obama at the end of the week.

He did not offer details, but State Department officials in Washington said Kerry had presented Lavrov with a plan of steps – what the US has called an “offramp” for Russia – for restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty while answering Russia’s concerns. Russia bases its Black Sea fleet in Crimea, and many ethnic Russians reside in eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that those ethnic Russians are under threat from the Ukrainian forces that pulled off what he called a Western-backed “coup” against deposed (and pro-Russia) President Viktor Yanukovych.

Russian officials are still refusing to sit down with representatives of Ukraine’s interim government, but Kerry said he hoped such meetings could be part of the “intense diplomacy” he anticipates over the coming days.

Kerry did offer Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andriy Deschchytsia, a seat on his plane from Kiev to Paris Tuesday night in hopes that a Russia-Ukraine meeting could be pulled off. When that didn’t happen, Kerry insisted he had always known that such a meeting had “zero chance” of happening Wednesday, but that he has hopes for a Russia-Ukraine dialogue at some point before too long.   

Wednesday’s flurry of diplomacy aimed at defusing the Ukraine crisis took place even as tensions between Russia and the West, and in particular between Russia and the United States, continued to escalate on domestic fronts.

Russian lawmakers moved to answer initiatives under way in Congress to slap sanctions on Russian banks and individuals over the Russian occupation of Crimea. In Moscow, members of parliament said Russia would retaliate against any Western sanctions with a plan for the confiscation of assets of US and European corporations in Russia.

The potential for tit-for-tat sanctions raised prospects of the kind of “mutual damage” that Mr. Putin warned this week would result from either side in the Ukraine standoff embarking down the sanctions road.

Putin’s warning and the we’ll-hit-you-back rhetoric coming out of the Duma help explain why European leaders on the whole have been much less enthusiastic than the US about imposing sanctions on Russia. The European Union-Russia trade relationship is about 10 times the size of the US-Russia trade flow, while the EU is dependent on Russia for a significant share of its energy imports.

But such concerns have not dampened the determination of many in Congress to demonstrate to Russia that, as Mr. Obama has said, there would be “costs” for what US officials insist (despite Putin’s denials) is a military occupation of a sovereign nation.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday will take up a resolution urging sanctions on Russian banks, commercial enterprises, and individuals linked to the Ukraine intervention.

Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R) of California says the nonbinding resolution would demonstrate congressional backing for a tough US policy aimed at “forcing Vladimir Putin to reverse his aggression.” Ranking member Eliot Engel (D) of New York says the resolution “puts Putin on notice that his reckless actions will have consequences.”

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