Paris talks bring hope in Ukraine stand-off
Tensions defused after Russia denies it is planning invasion
Russian and American officials were last night preparing for talks in Paris to address the crisis in Ukraine, as Moscow issued a rebuttal of intelligence claims that it was poised to invade its neighbour.
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, turned around his flight home to Washington from Riyadh to attend talks with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, scheduled to take place today.
The Paris meeting was set up after Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin spoke over the telephone during the US president's visit to Saudi Arabia to try to smooth tensions that have pitched the countries in Europe close to the brink of war.
The talks follow apparent efforts by the Kremlin to defuse tensions after Mr Obama warned Russia to pull back troops from the Ukrainian border.
The first sign of a thaw came on Friday night, when Mr Putin and Mr Obama spent an hour on the phone to discuss what the White House is calling a "diplomatic resolution".
"President Obama suggested that Russia put a concrete response in writing and the presidents agreed that Kerry and Lavrov would meet to discuss next steps," the White House said.
Mr Lavrov reinforced that message yesterday, telling Russian state television that there were no plans to enter Ukraine. "We have absolutely no intention, or interest, in crossing Ukraine's borders," he told the Vest news channel.
The Kremlin's choice of words was somewhat different: according to the Russian account of the presidents' conversation, Mr Putin proposed "considering possible steps by the international community to help stabilise the situation".
But the message seems clear: after warnings of troop build-ups in border areas caused fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow appears to be making efforts to reassure the world.
While there were fears that Russia was engaged in "maskirovka" – an exercise in deception and diversion – the signs are that Moscow may have tired of the game of military brinkmanship it initiated nearly a month ago with its takeover of Crimea.
Mr Lavrov used his interview to outline what a diplomatic solution might look like, reiterating a list of demands including the federalisation of Ukraine, the adoption of Russian as an official language, and clearing Kiev's Independence Square and occupied buildings of protesters. He also said Ukraine must commit to never joining Nato.
"There should be no ambiguity here. There is too much 'not for the time being' and 'we don't intend to'. Intentions change, but facts on the ground remain," Mr Lavrov said.
Western powers and Ukrainian leaders have previously rejected federalisation as a thinly masked means by which Moscow could increase its influence over Ukrainian regions next to its western border.
Protesters have said they will remain on the Maidan, as Independence Square is known, until at least the May 25 general election, to ensure that the result is free and fair.
But Mr Lavrov hinted yesterday that Western diplomats had suggested they may be willing to negotiate on some of his points.
"Our approaches are converging," he said. "They are listening. I can say that a federation is far from a forbidden word in our talks. Frankly speaking, Russia sees no path of sustainable development for the Ukrainian state other than federalisation."
There are other key elements to be discussed. In his call to Mr Obama, Mr Putin raised what the Kremlin called "the effective blockade" of Transdnistria, a breakaway part of Moldova on Ukraine's western border where Russia maintains a peacekeeping force.
"[Mr Putin] emphasised that Russia stands for a just and comprehensive settlement of the Transdnistrian problem," the Kremlin said.
The breakaway state is unrecognised even by Russia, but it has maintained effective independence since fighting a war of secession from Moldova in 1992.
In a signal that Moscow wants to link the Ukraine and Crimean crises with Transdnistria, Mr Lavrov spoke at length about what he called "outrageously provocative rhetoric" and a conspiracy between Moldova and Ukraine to enforce a near siege against the region.
American and Ukrainian defence officials have expressed concern that Russia may use its garrisons in the region to mount an annexation similar to that of Crimea, or even to launch raids into Ukraine as part of an invasion.