German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in Ukraine on Tuesday he hoped “round table” talks between politicians and civil groups this week would help disarm pro-Russian separatists and improve the atmosphere for elections due later this month.
Steinmeier met Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at Kyiv airport before traveling on to the Black Sea city of Odessa, the site of deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and rebels.
The situation in parts of Ukraine remained "dangerous and threatening," said the German minister, adding that the priority was for as many voters as possible to take part in presidential elections on May 25.
“We also support your efforts to launch a national dialogue, under Ukrainian ownership, here in your country, through round tables, at the central level and in the regions," Steinmeier said at a news conference with Yatsenyuk.
"I hope that under these conditions it is possible to take steps to bring back occupied buildings and eventually to disarm illegal groups and restore the state's monopoly on violence," said the German foreign minister.
Yatsenyuk thanked former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, who runs the annual Munich Security Conference, for being prepared to co-moderate the "round table," which Kyiv said may start on Wednesday.
Kyiv has declined to say which groups will join the talks but acting President Oleksander Turchinov has said "terrorists" - meaning the rebels - cannot take part. Moscow says the talks cannot succeed without direct dialogue between Kyiv and the
New sanctions criticized
Russia said on Tuesday new European Union sanctions will hinder efforts to defuse the crisis in Ukraine and urged the West to persuade Kyiv to hold discussions on the country's future structure before a May 25 presidential election.
The EU imposed sanctions on two Crimean companies and 13 people on Monday in response to Moscow's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for Russian-speaking separatists.
The EU had already imposed asset freezes and visa bans on 48 Russians and Ukrainians, and the United States has also imposed sanctions during the worst crisis in relations between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told the EU envoy to Russia on Tuesday that the EU sanctions were a "exhausted, trite approach... that will not only not resolve but will deepen differences, hindering the joint search for a way out of the real crisis situation in Ukraine," the Foreign Ministry said.
Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, said that other countries must share the burden in imposing sanctions on Russia and that any measures should also include the energy and financial sectors as well as defense.
Fabius, speaking in an interview with CNN on Monday, also suggested France had not ruled out reviewing the sale of warships to Russia - a contract agreed before the crisis in Ukriane broke out.
The United States has been pressing France, Germany and Britain to take a tougher line against Russia to punish Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and to dissuade it from intervening in east Ukraine.
Asked if France was on the same page as the United States, Fabius said: ``I think so, provided that everybody makes the same sacrifices'' - a reference to other nations.
“It's not sanctions against Europe, but Russia. Let's not forget that,” he said.
But while EU powers Germany, France and Britain have all threatened tougher action against Moscow if it undermined the May 25 Ukrainian presidential election, they are hesitant to adopt sanctions that could harm their own interests.
For France, this would mean at least delaying the defense contract. For Britain, closing its mansions and bank vaults to magnates close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Germany, it would mean reducing its dependency on Russian gas.
Eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region declared independence Monday and is asking Moscow to consider letting it become part of Russia. The pro-Russian leader of the eastern region of Luhansk also declared that region's independence.
Separatists in both regions say 90 percent voted in favor of breaking away from Ukraine in two separate referendums Sunday. The results cannot be independently verified.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry called the elections "clumsy" and said polls by Western and Ukrainian agencies show the vast majority of those living in the east prefer a unified Ukraine.
It accused "pro-Russian terrorists" of intimidating the majority against speaking out, and said a free and fair presidential election on May 25 is its priority.
The results of self-rule referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk "should be a clear signal to Kyiv of the depth of the crisis" in Ukraine, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Kremlin has stopped short of endorsing independence for the regions or their absorption into Russia but has said the referendums underscore the need for talks between the pro-Western government and separatists from the east.
"Moscow hopes… the EU and United States will use their influence on the current leadership in Kyiv so that issues of state structure and respect for the rights of regions are discussed soon - in any case before the election scheduled for
May 25," it said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested the Ukrainian election, which the government hopes will increase its legitimacy and control, will not be legitimate if people in the east are not confident their rights will be protected.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to undermining Ukraine's territorial integrity.
“Over the past weeks there has been much violence and little dialogue. I call on all those who have sought to undermine Ukraine’s unity, territorial integrity and stability to immediately cease such actions. The authorities in Kyiv should also continue to respond to such acts with the maximum restraint and within the parameters of Ukrainian law and international human rights principles,” said Ban.
The United States and European Union said they do not recognize the results of Sunday's voting.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington is "disappointed" that Moscow did not use its influence to prevent the votes from taking place, after Putin urged the separatists to put off the referendums.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.