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West Calls for Direct Talks in Russia-Ukraine Crisis

The U.S, Britain, and Ukraine have called for direct talks between Ukraine and Russia, saying they are crucial to resolving the conflict in Ukraine's Crimean region.

The foreign ministers of those three nations, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, issued a joint statement Wednesday after talks in Paris.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was also in Paris for the talks by the so-called Budapest agreement group, but did not attend the meeting. Under the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, the U.S., Britain and Russia agreed to support Ukraine's territorial integrity.

The U.S. State Department said Kerry, who met with Ukrainian officials in Kyiv on Tuesday, spoke privately with Lavrov and urged him to engage in talks with his new counterpart from Ukraine, interim foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia.

In Wednesday's statement, Washington, London, and Kyiv also called for international observers to be deployed in Ukraine immediately, especially in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, near the Russian border.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said earlier that the U.S. 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 understand that its pattern of intervening in countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will change its relationship with European nations.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted Wednesday as saying he does not want the "political tension" between Russian and Ukraine to detract from economic cooperation between the two countries.

Western leaders have been calling for a de-escalation of tensions sparked when Russian forces moved into Ukraine's Crimean peninsula late last week. The West has suggested the crisis could be resolved if Russia pulls back its forces to their bases on the Black Sea and allows in international monitors.

But Lavrov said 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.

And he said allowing international monitors into Crimea is not Russia's decision, but the decision of Ukrainian and Crimean authorities.

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."

He blamed Mr. Putin for the region's current unrest and said Ukrainian leaders "cannot figure out" why Mr. Putin has sent Russian troops into Crimea. He expressed fear that Russia could expand its presence to other Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine.

Crimea is set to hold a referendum on its future status on March 30. Ethnic Russians make up nearly 60-percent of the peninsula's population.

The head of the European Union's executive arm, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, said Wednesday the EU is ready to provide Ukraine, which is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, with $15 billion in aid in the coming years.

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package for Ukraine.

NATO and Russia have agreed to meet Wednesday in Brussels for talks on the crisis in Ukraine -- their first public contact since the Crimea crisis began. NATO said Tuesday the Russian military presence in Ukraine presents "serious implications for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic area."

Kerry was in Kyiv on Tuesday to meet with Ukrainian officials and said the United States wants to see a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The Crimean peninsula was placed under Ukrainian control in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It remained part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Crimea has a tiny border with Russia on its far eastern point, and the Crimean port of Sevastapol is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet.

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