U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on Russia to pull back thousands of troops along the Ukraine border, saying those forces are creating a "climate of fear" that does not support diplomatic dialogue. Secretary Kerry met late Sunday in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Despite different views of events that led to this crisis, Kerry said the United States and Russia agree on the importance of finding a diplomatic solution, and that both made suggestions about how to de-escalate the security and political situation.
"We also agreed to work with the Ukrainian government and the people to implement the steps that they are taking to ensure the following priorities: the rights of national minorities, language rights, demobilization and disarmament of irregular forces and provocateurs, an inclusive constitutional reform process and free and fair elections monitored by the international community," said Kerry.
But Kerry added that any real progress must include a pullback of 40,000 Russian troops massing along Ukraine's borders.
"We believe that these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine. It certainly does not create the climate that we need for the dialogue," said Kerry.
Following four hours of talks, Lavrov held a separate Paris news conference and read from a nearly identical statement on their agreed priorities. But instead of Russian troops, he focused on decentralizing power to protect minorities -- concerns that Moscow has used to justify annexing the Crimean peninsula.
Within this framework, Lavrov said, all regions and political forces will have an equal voice to agree on which kind of political, economic, financial, social and religious traditions will be respected in different parts of the country.
Kerry said the United States still considers Russian actions in Crimea "illegal and illegitimate," and rejects any attempt to outline new federal structures without including provisional authorities in Kyiv.
"We will not accept a path forward where the legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table. This principle is clear: No decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine," said Kerry.
U.S. officials said they saw in these talks some increased acknowledgement from Russia that Ukraine is meeting some of its concerns about minority rights in Russian-speaking areas. That may be a way for the Kremlin to justify pulling back some of its troops.
Washington now believes Moscow is using those troops not only to intimidate Ukrainians but also as a bargaining chip with Europe and the United States in the most serious East-West standoff since the end of the Cold War.
Western leaders are considering broader sanctions against Russia that could target its oil and gas industry. Obama administration officials have said it is clear those sanctions are biting, and equally clear that Russia does not want more of them.
In an interview on state television, Lavrov dismissed the Western visa bans and asset freezes on allies of President Vladimir Putin.
"I don't want to say they are laughable," Lavrov said. "I don't want to say that we don't care. They are unpleasant. But the fact they try to take those sanctions on a more personal level and present them as directed at certain people personally is clearly a desire to take revenge."
Following these talks, Kerry looks to keep the pressure on Russia at this week's meeting of NATO foreign ministers, with President Obama calling on the trans-Atlantic alliance to station more troops in countries "that may feel vulnerable."