Chances for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine may be improving, based on new comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and word that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is flying to Europe to try to arrange an immediate meeting with the Kremlin envoy.
Kerry had been heading back to Washington from Saudi Arabia when he learned of Lavrov's pledge - aired on Russian state television - that Russia now has no intention of, or interest in, sending its military into Ukraine following its seizure and annexation of Crimea.
The top U.S. diplomat's plane changed course during a refueling stop Saturday in Shannon, Ireland. Reporters were told Kerry and his aides were now bound for Paris, and that efforts were under way to arrange a meeting with Lavrov as soon as possible.
VOA's Scott Stearns, traveling on the secretary's plane, said no details were immediately available, but that it appeared Kerry and Lavrov could meet on Sunday or Monday, either in Paris or elsewhere in Europe.
President Barack Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone late Friday about the need for a diplomatic settlement of the crisis over Russia's confrontation with Ukraine, and they also signaled there would be further talks between their top diplomats. The United States has urged Russia to pull back its troops from the Ukrainian border and begin negotiating to defuse tensions.
The U.S. also has been pressing Russia to allow international monitors into Crimea to assure the ethnic-Ukrainian population there is safe.
A Russian military buildup around Ukraine during the past few days has caused worldwide concern, including fears that President Putin's policies might be steering his nation toward "a new Cold War." U.S. officials estimate Russia has massed 40,000 troops close to Ukraine's borders; Ukrainian government officials contend the Russian buildup around their northern, eastern and southern borders is closer to 100,000 troops.
A crisis in relations between Moscow and Kyiv took a turn for the worse nearly a month ago, when Russian forces moved into Crimea in support of a breakaway movement there. Pro-Russian forces in Crimea unilaterally proposed and held a short-notice referendum in Crimea. The vote declared the Black Sea territory independent of Ukrainian control by a margin of more than nine to one, and local authorities in Crimea began seizing control of Ukrainian state assets.
Mr. Putin and the Russian parliament subsequently annexed Crimea, making it a separate part of the Russian state although Crimea has no border touching Russia. The annexation met with worldwide condemnation, including a vote by the United Nations General Assembly, and the United States and its European allies began enforcing a series of economic sanctions against Moscow.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko dropped out of race for president Saturday, throwing his support behind billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko.
Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovych left Kyiv for asylum in Russia after large-scale demonstrations against him last month, and the parliament in Kyiv called a presidential election for May.
Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, told delegates from his party the only way for the opposition to take over full control in Ukraine is to nominate, support and elect "a single candidate representing democratic forces."
His leaves two clear frontrunners in the May 25 vote - Poroshenko and former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed from prison during the tumult of the uprising against Yanukovych.
Ms. Tymoshekno lost in the 2010 presidential election to Mr. Yanukovych. She was jailed in 2011 on charges of abuse of office.