By John Irish and Timothy Heritage
PARIS/KIEV (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday it could not order “self-defense” forces in Crimea back to their bases ahead of the first face-to-face talks with the United States on easing tensions over Ukraine and averting the risk of war.
Russia and the West are facing the most serious confrontation since the end of the Cold War over influence in Ukraine, a major commodities exporter and strategic link between East and West.
Ukraine pulled out of a trade deal with the European Union under Russian pressure last year, leading to months of street protests in Kiev and the February 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally.
Russia has effectively occupied the Crimea region, further raising the tensions in the region and provoking sharp falls in financial markets on Monday although they have since stabilized.
Speaking before meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris later in the day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Moscow’s assertion – ridiculed by the West – that the troops that have seized control of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula are not under Russian command.
“If you mean the self-defense units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us,” Lavrov told a questioner at a joint news conference with his Spanish counterpart in Madrid.
“As for the military personnel of the (Russian) Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites… We will do everything not to allow any bloodshed.”
Lavrov will also meet the German, British and French foreign ministers and France’s President Francois Hollande on the sidelines of a conference in Paris attended by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
NATO and Russia will hold parallel talks in Brussels amid concerns that a standoff between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Crimea could still spark violence, or that Moscow could also intervene in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
The West is pushing for Russia to return troops to barracks, accept international monitors in Crimea and Ukraine and negotiate a solution to the crisis through a “contact group” probably under the auspices of a pan-European security body.
France said European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday could decide on sanctions against Russia if there is no “de-escalation” by then. Other EU countries, including Germany, are more reticent about sanctions.
President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended Russia’s actions in Crimea, which used to be Russian territory, and said he would use force only as a last resort.
This eased market fears of a war over the former Soviet republic after sharp falls on Monday, although Russian shares and the ruble slipped again on Wednesday and Ukraine’s hryvnia dropped against the dollar.
“LIKE THE USSR”
Russian forces remain in control of Crimea, where Interfax reported they seized control of two Ukrainian missile defense sites overnight, and Putin gave no sign of backing down.
“What he wants above all is a new empire, like the USSR but called Russia,” former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko told France’s Europe 1 radio.
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin the right to intervene militarily.
“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations,” Obama said. “But I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”
A senior administration official said Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and discussed a potential resolution to the crisis. The Russian-speaking German leader has good relations with the German-speaking Putin, and Berlin is Russia’s biggest economic partner.
The official said Obama, in his phone call with Putin last Saturday, had discussed what officials called an “off-ramp” to the crisis in which Russia would pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases and allow international monitors to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are protected.
The U.S. president will stay away from a G8 summit scheduled for Sochi, Russia, in June unless there is a Russian reversal in the Ukraine crisis, the official added.
G7 MAY MEET SOON
At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said on Tuesday that Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect compatriots who were living in “terror” in Ukraine but that force was not needed for now.
France’s Hollande became the latest Western leader to raise the possibility of sanctions if Putin does not step back and accept mediation. He set out a tougher public line than Merkel, who has avoided talk of sanctions so far.
“The role of France alongside Europe … is to exert all necessary pressure, including a possible imposition of sanctions, to push for dialogue and seek a political solution to this crisis.” he said at an annual dinner of France’s Jewish community leaders late on Tuesday.
Putin has said Western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive and the Russian Information Agency reported that Moscow is preparing counter-measures against Western firms if necessary.
A senior U.S. official said Washington was ready to impose sanctions in days rather than weeks.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after speaking to Obama at the weekend that the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when Russia was formally included.
Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Yanukovich, accused Moscow on Tuesday of seeking a pretext to invade more of the country.
He said the United States was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchitsia, is also in Paris for talks with French officials and Kerry. It was not clear if he too would meet Lavrov.
Lavrov told European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that an EU-brokered agreement signed by political leaders
in Kiev on February 21 should be the basis for stabilizing the situation in Ukraine, his ministry said on Wednesday.
He said the agreement foresaw constitutional reform which would take into account the wishes of all regions in Ukraine. Russia says the deal was broken by the removal of Yanukovich.
No major incidents were reported in Crimea on Wednesday and Ukraine’s top security official said he hoped the crisis could be ended soon.
In a sign of the fragility of the situation, a Russian soldier on Tuesday fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near Sevastopol.
After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other and Russian soldiers leveled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the Ukrainians eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.
The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said the 4.5-km (2.7-mile) wide waterway was still open for civilian shipping.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Kiev and Gabriel Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Paul Taylor; Editing by Anna Willard)