US, Russia plan Ukraine talks even as worsening crisis casts doubt on dialogue

Secretary Kerry plans to meet Lavrov next week in Europe but sounded a warning Tuesday that 'Russian special forces and agents' are out to create a 'contrived crisis' in eastern Ukraine.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss his budget and the status of diplomatic hot spots. Lawmakers' questions focused on Russia, Ukraine, Iran, and Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plan to meet next week in Europe to try to find a resolution to the Ukraine crisis – presumably one that leaves the country caught in a tug-of-war between East and West in one piece.

But with each of the top diplomats ratcheting up the rhetoric about the other side – Mr. Kerry on Tuesday told Senators that covert Russian action in eastern Ukraine appeared to be laying the groundwork for another Crimea-style intervention – just how effective a US-Russia dialogue will be by next week remains a question.

If the Russian activity Kerry described continues or becomes more overt – if the 40,000 Russian troops the US says are on the border were to carry out an incursion into Ukraine, for example – presumably next week's meeting would be off.

Both US and Russian officials confirmed that Kerry and Mr. Lavrov will meet along with European Union and Ukrainian officials.

But Kerry demonstrated neither trust nor understanding toward the Russians as he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What the US sees in eastern Ukraine, Kerry said, are “Russian special forces and agents” out to create a “contrived crisis” – one that he said could lead to a “military intervention just as we saw in Crimea.”

Describing Russia as the catalyst behind “the chaos of the last 24 hours,” in which pro-Russia demonstrators in three eastern Ukraine cities have seized government buildings and declared some form of independence, Kerry said the US and its Western partners were prepared to impose tougher sanctions on Russia if it persists in its efforts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“What we see from Russia is an illegal, illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state,” Kerry said. “We will not hesitate to use 21st century tools to hold Russia accountable for 19th century behavior.”

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow Tuesday, Lavrov chose a more moderate tone in responding to US allegations – he referred to the US as “our American partners” – but he nevertheless dismissed the US charges and said that in fact it was the US and unspecified American “payments” to certain elements in Ukraine that were behind the instability.

“I will leave these claims on the conscience of our American partners,” Lavrov said. “One shouldn’t lay one’s own fault at somebody else’s door.”

Lavrov also suggested that any social unrest in eastern Ukraine that degenerates into armed clashes would be the fault of the Ukrainian government. In the kind of comment that Washington has been interpreting as a “pretext” for Russian intervention, Lavrov warned that what he called “military preparations” being undertaken by the Ukrainian military could lead to “civil war.”

Ukrainian special forces were ordered to retake government buildings seized by protesters Sunday in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk. By Tuesday the turmoil appeared to be quieting down in Donetsk, where negotiations were under way, but confusion and disarray reigned in Kharkiv. None of the protests appeared to have the broad public backing that the Crimean uprising did, however.      

The two opposing takes on events in Ukraine from the US and Russia would seem to leave little room for working out a solution.

Russia says it wants a “neutral” Ukraine that adopts a strong federal system and devolves essential powers to the regions. Lavrov maintained Tuesday that Russia wants a united Ukraine, but one where the voices of ethnic Russian in the east are heard and represented.

The pro-Western government in Kiev says Moscow is really seeking to “divide and destroy” the country. And many Western experts on Russia agree with Kiev’s assessment of Russian intentions.

“What we’re seeing from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a very clear but dark game plan,” says Fiona Hill, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If he can’t have Ukraine, then he is fully prepared to trash it.”

Kerry’s tough words appear designed at least in part to caution Moscow that the West is not about to sit back and watch that “trashing” take place.

As Kerry reminded senators Tuesday, the US and the European Union stand poised – after two rounds of putting in place sanctions on Russian individuals and entities – to take a much bigger third step: imposing sanctions “on key sectors of the Russian economy in energy, banking, mining” if Russia intervenes in eastern Ukraine.

“They are all on the table,” Kerry said of the broader sanctions. What remains to be seen is what else will be on the table in the way of ideas for resolving the crisis by the time the chief players meet next week.

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