US-Russian talks break down as Crimea poll looms
Russia and the West were on a collision course last night after the failure of an 11th-hour attempt to settle the confrontation over Ukraine.
John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, warned that Moscow would suffer "consequences" when six hours of talks with his Russian counterpart broke up without agreement.
After this meeting at Winfield House, the US ambassador's residence in London, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, described the Ukrainian region of Crimea as being "immeasurably more important for Russia than the Falklands for the United Kingdom".
The talks' failure means a referendum on Crimea joining Russia will proceed tomorrow.
European Union foreign ministers are then expected to meet on Monday and impose travel bans and asset freezes on between 120 and 130 powerful Russians linked to the Kremlin.
Moscow last night claimed it had "intercepted" a US drone over Crimea.
However, the statement, which was published by Rostec, the Russian state arms and technology group, was later removed from the company's website and was firmly denied by the Pentagon.
Russia, meanwhile, is believed to have deployed about 80,000 troops near Ukraine's eastern frontier. The foreign ministry in Moscow raised fears of a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine by reserving Russia's "right" to intervene to protect its citizens.
Mr Kerry had asked Mr Lavrov for an assurance that Moscow would not annex Crimea after the referendum.
He also wanted Russia to reverse its military build-up near Ukraine's eastern border, open direct talks with the country's new leaders and allow international observers into Crimea.
No progress was made on any of these points. Mr Kerry described the meeting as "very direct, very cordial and frank", adding that Mr Lavrov had "made it clear that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is not prepared to make any decisions regarding Ukraine until after the referendum".
Mr Kerry voiced concern "about the large deployments of Russian forces" in Crimea and on Ukraine's eastern frontier. "There will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course," he said.
If Russia annexes Crimea, this would "fly in the face of" every effort to resolve the crisis, he added, and the US would not recognise the outcome of the "illegal" referendum.
Mr Kerry accepted that Moscow had "legitimate interests in Ukraine", but condemned Russia's de facto seizure of its neighbour's territory as a "breach of international law and a challenge, frankly, to the global standard of how nations have been called on to behave". Mr Lavrov, for his part, said that "no measures are being taken to provide security and order" in Ukraine and curb the "radicals" who, he claimed, had seized power in Kiev during last month's revolution.
On the status of Crimea, he said that Russia would "respect the will of the people of Crimea that will be expressed in the referendum". This plebiscite allows only two options: joining Russia immediately or empowering the Crimean parliament to decide to join Russia later.
Mr Lavrov ruled out "direct contact" with Ukraine's new government, saying: "This crisis was not caused by Russia."
Mr Lavrov highlighted a clash yesterday between pro- and anti-Russian protesters in Ukraine's eastern city of Donetsk, which claimed one life, saying this was a "horrible situation".He noted that his ministry had reserved Russia's "right" to intervene to protect its citizens. In Crimea, the territory's leader predicted that union with Russia could happen next week, although full integration into the Russian Federation would take about a year.
"I am absolutely sure that the people of Crimea will vote for the first question – that is, becoming a federal subject of the Russian federation," said Sergei Aksyonov, the pro-Russian prime minister of Crimea.
However, a significant number of Crimea's people have no wish to join Russia. The Tatar community, comprising at least 12pc of the population, have bitter memories of their deportation at the hands of the Soviet Union in the 1940s.Thousands of Tatars gathered for demonstrations against the referendum. "We're here because we want peace. We don't want a war, and we don't want to live in Putin's Russia," said Sivin Medvedeva, a young mother who was among the protesters. (© Daily Telegraph, London)