U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced additional multi-national talks in the coming days on the crisis in Ukraine, and said Western and Ukrainian diplomats are calling for face-to-face meetings between Kyiv and Moscow to ease the military emergency in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.
Kerry spoke Wednesday in Paris, after he and British Foreign Secretary William Hague met separately with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and with Ukrainian interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia. Kerry said "intense [multi-national] discussions" would take place later this week.
Earlier, at a separate meeting, Kerry, his British counterpart William Hague and Deshchytsia called for the immediate deployment of international observers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov did not attend that meeting.
Kerry said he spoke privately with Lavrov and urged him to engage in talks with the Ukrainian minister. However, Western diplomats were quoted as saying Lavrov left Paris without having met Deshchytsia. Lavrov was quoted as saying further talks will take place "in days to come."
For his part, Kerry said he had not expected such a meeting to occur Wednesday.
Renewing calls for Russia to send troops back to the barracks, Kerry also said he expects to meet with Russia’s Lavrov in Rome on Thursday.
He added that there are 'a number of ideas on the table' to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, but that he will first consult with President Obama.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said earlier the United States and Britain are pursuing "every diplomatic opportunity" to bring Russian and Ukrainian officials into contact with each other.
Hague said there will be "costs and consequences" for Russia if diplomatic progress is not made. He said Russia should understand that its pattern of intervening in countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will change its relationship with European nations.
Lavrov on Russian 'forces' in Crimea
Commenting on Western calls for a Russian withdrawal from Crimea, Lavrov said earlier Wednesday that Russia cannot order pro-Russian armed forces in Crimea, which he described as "self-defense" forces, back to bases, because they are not Russian forces. He said Russia's Black Sea fleet personnel are in their normal positions.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also denied that Russian military forces are deployed in Crimea, anywhere outside Russia's Black Sea fleet base.
He dismissed as a "provocation" video footage showing Russian armored military vehicles with Russian license plates on the peninsula and a soldier in the Crimean town of Kerch identifying himself and his fellow serviceman as Russians.
Claims by Moscow that the forces in Crimea are local "self-defense" forces have been challenged, implicitly or directly, both by the West and Ukraine. In a statement Monday, the G-7 condemned Russia's actions in Crimea as "a clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine." The U.S. has called them an "incredible act of aggression."
Ukrainian officials say Moscow has sent 16,000 troops into Crimea since last week.
Ukrainian media has circulated images of hardware and weapons used by uniformed men outside the Russian Black Sea fleet base which it says are only issued only to regular Russian service personnel.
The uniforms worn and vehicles driven by what Russia calls local defense forces in Crimea bear no visible insignia.
US stands with Ukraine
The Pentagon has announced that it is canceling military exercises with Russia over its actions in Ukraine, while boosting military contacts with NATO partners and other nations in Eastern Europe.
Testifying on the matter before U.S. Congress, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also made clear where Washington stood with regard to current tensions between Russia and Ukraine.
“This is a time for wise, steady, and firm leadership. And it is a time for all of us to stand with the Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity and their sovereignty. And we are doing that,” Hagel told a Senate panel adding that the United States is focused on de-escalating the crisis and supporting the Ukrainian government in the face of Russian intervention.
According to Hagel, the U.S. military is stepping up joint training through an aviation detachment in Poland and boosting participation in a NATO air policing mission over Baltic states.
US Congress steps up
In a rare show of support for President Barack Obama, Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Wednesday they would work with the White House to address the crisis in Ukraine and vote on legislation offering financial aid soon.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the Republican-led House will consider a $1 billion loan guarantee package for Ukraine and look at measures to “put significant pressure on Russia to stop the flagrant aggression to its neighbor in Ukraine.”
The world community should stand united against this invasion; America should be leading and we'll vote soon on legislation to aid the Ukrainian people,” Cantor told reporters.
House Speaker John Boehner also said that the House will work in a bipartisan way with Obama, a Democrat.
A bill to assist Ukraine, backed by both Republicans and Democrats, is also making its way through the U.S. Senate.
EU freezes assets
The European Union says it is freezing the financial assets in Europe of 18 Ukrainian nationals it says misused the Kyiv government's state funds.
The EU's foreign ministers approved the list Wednesday but withheld the names for a day before their official publication in the EU's legal journal, so the Ukrainians would not have a last chance to withdraw their assets. The sanctions will be effective for a year.
Sources report that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych could be on the EU list. Switzerland and Liechtenstein, two European nations outside the group of 28 EU countries, had already frozen his assets in their countries, along with the holdings of 19 other Ukrainian officials.
The EU officials said they hope to recover the assets and return the money to Ukraine's new government.
European Union's executive arm, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said Wednesday the EU is ready to provide Ukraine $15 billion in aid in the coming years.
The Obama administration has announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package for Ukraine.
Separately, Canada says it will impose economic sanctions on those who worked for ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement Wednesday before parliament but gave no further details.
Ukraine's new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told the Associated Press in an interview Wednesday that he would like a special task force established to discuss Crimea's status.
"Crimea is, was, and will be an integral part of the state of Ukraine. We believe that we need to establish a task force to establish what kind of additional autonomy Crimea could get," said Yatsenyuk.
The peninsula is currently an autonomous republic within Ukraine.
Yatsenyuk blamed Putin for the region's current unrest and said Ukrainian leaders "cannot figure out" why Putin has sent Russian troops into Crimea. He expressed fear that Russia could expand its presence to other Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.
Crimea, whose parliament was taken over by pro-Russian forces last week, is set to hold a referendum on the penisula’s future status on March 30. Ethnic Russians make up nearly 60-percent of the Crimea's population. It is not clear whether the plebiscite will proceed as announced.
Ukrainian Kids Send Putin Toy Soldiers
Meanwhile, activists from Ukraine's Euromaidan Civic Sector and several children have prepared packages with toy soldiers and guns to send to Russian President Vladimir Putin amid Russia's intervention in Ukraine's Crimea region. The children told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Kyiv they wanted Putin to play with toys, not real people.
Watch Video by RFE/RL:
Additonal reporting by Reuters