Ukraine crisis: Does John Kerry see glimmer of hope with Russia?

Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to take two messages to his meeting in London Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations and Related Programs, March 13. In his opening remarks Kerry spoke about Ukraine and other current foreign relation issues.

[Updated Friday 8:15 a.m. EDT] Secretary of State John Kerry’s decision to travel to London for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Friday suggests the US has some hope – rapidly fading though it may be – that Russia can still be talked back from the precipice over Crimea and its aggressive stance toward Ukraine.

The results of a referendum in Crimea Sunday on whether the largely pro-Russia peninsula should break away from Ukraine and rejoin Russia are hardly in doubt, most analysts say. With 60 percent of Crimea’s population ethnic Russians – not to mention the ubiquitous yes-to-Russia billboards in Crimea’s cities – a pro-Russia vote seems a foregone conclusion.

Less certain, if only slightly, is exactly how Russia will respond to that vote. So it is really the future course of Russia – and in particular of Russian President Vladimir Putin – that Secretary Kerry, President Obama, and other Western leaders are trying to influence.

Kerry had a phone conversation with Mr. Lavrov on Thursday in which he “reiterated the United States’ concern about the upcoming referendum and made clear there will be costs if Russia continues to take escalatory steps,” a senior State Department official said. The “steps” include a fresh round of military maneuvers that have thousands of Russian soldiers gathered on Ukraine’s eastern border in what are seen in Kiev as deliberate intimidating measures.    

A day after Kerry told members of Congress that “it can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday told the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of Parliament, that Russia risks “massive” political and economic consequences if it does not reverse course and enter “negotiations” on the Ukraine crisis.

Calling Russia’s military occupation of Crimea “a breach of international law,” Ms. Merkel added, “Let me be absolutely clear: The territorial integrity of Ukraine is not up for discussion.” 

She issued an economic warning to Russia, saying that the European Union would have no choice but to alter its relationship with Russia if Moscow sticks to its current “illegal” course in Ukraine. 

In his meeting with Lavrov, which got under way Friday morning Eastern time, Kerry is expected to deliver two message: first, that Russia can still defuse the crisis by entering talks with Ukrainian officials and addressing the legitimate concerns of eastern and southern Ukraine’s ethnic Russians through dialogue; and second, that Russia will face heavy “costs,” as Mr. Obama repeated Wednesday, if it does not join the international community by “rethinking” its approach to Ukraine.

Neither message is new. Indeed, Kerry’s decision to decline an invitation to visit Moscow this week appeared to be based on the responses the US received from Mr. Putin to proposals Kerry presented to Lavrov last week for addressing the crisis.

It would make little sense for Kerry to travel to Moscow just to hear that the proposals – including the idea of a “contact group” of countries to guide negotiations – were rejected, State Department officials say.

By the same token, Kerry’s last-minute decision to travel to London suggests that perhaps the phone conversations he has had with Lavrov in recent days offer some glimmer of hope for progress. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday that it is “appropriate” for Kerry “to make the case again for why a far better choice ... would be to de-escalate and for Russia to pursue its interests through the means available to it that are legal and have the endorsement of the international community.”

Another reason for what is being characterized as a “last-ditch” effort to get Russia to take what the US calls the “offramp” from a deeper European conflict over Ukraine: Events could deteriorate very fast after Sunday’s referendum.

EU foreign ministers are slated to meet Monday to consider the EU’s next steps, including a package of sanctions that could be adopted later in the week. In his Senate testimony Thursday, Kerry suggested the administration would back European action with steps beyond the sanctions it has already announced.

But Russia was not sounding Thursday like a power seeking to defuse the crisis.

In Moscow, Deputy Economy Minister Alexey Likhachev said his country is prepared to “mirror” any sanctions or other punitive measures the US and the EU impose on Russia.

Ukrainian officials in Kiev were set on edge by more than 8,000 Russian troops carrying out “training exercises” along the border with Ukraine Thursday. Kerry told a Senate committee that “our hope is not to create hysteria or excessive concern” about Russia’s military maneuvers and potential for further military action in Ukraine. But the military exercises appeared to be leaving some Ukrainians fearful that aggressive moves against other parts of eastern Ukraine could be in the offing.

At the same time, some members of Russia’s Duma said the parliament could act in as little as two weeks after a pro-Russia result in Crimea’s referendum to annex the Ukrainian peninsula.

The final decision on reincorporating Crimea into Mother Russia would then be Putin’s.

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