U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov exchanged sharp comments on Ukraine at an international meeting in Basel, Switzerland.
Kerry put the blame for the Ukraine crisis squarely on Russia, with his Russian counterpart sitting nearby.
The top U.S. diplomat on Thursday accused Russia of providing weapons and other support to separatists in eastern Ukraine, and violating the Minsk Protocol that it helped negotiate, which called for a cease-fire and other steps to end the crisis.
"The result is damage to its own credibility and its own citizens wind up paying a steep economic and human price, including the price of hundreds of Russian soldiers who fight and die in a country where they had and have no right to be," Kerry said.
A reporter asked Lavrov about that later, at the start of a meeting with Kerry. The Russian minister declined to answer. But then he could be heard challenging Kerry on it as they sat down to talk, asking why, if hundreds of Russian soldiers had died in Ukraine, it is not shown on television news broadcasts.
In the past, Russia has said that any of its troops fighting in eastern Ukraine were doing so as volunteers during their time off. But Russia made similar claims during the invasion of Crimea, later admitting that the heavily armed men in unmarked green uniforms had been Russian troops.
Kerry said the rules and principles of the international system must be enforced, apparently referring to the international rejection of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and to economic sanctions put in place to try to reverse it, and to end the Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.
But he said the international community does not seek confrontation.
"Moscow could rebuild trust and relationships if it simply helps to calm turbulent waters," said Kerry.
Lavrov rejected criticism of Russia’s behavior, and said it supports the Minsk agreement.
He said Russian military experts are working with the Ukrainian government to settle on a cease-fire line, which could lead to both sides withdrawing heavy weapons. He also repeated the Russian demand for direct talks between the Ukrainian government and leaders of the two self-declared independent areas in eastern Ukraine.
A State Department official said Kerry, in the private meeting, told Lavrov Russia should "return to serious discussions" on a Ukraine cease-fire.
The two men spoke at a meeting of 57 foreign ministers at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has had the only international observers in eastern Ukraine during the last several months of fighting.
At the meeting, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, said Russia’s actions have undermined the security of all of Europe.
"What we need is not just [a] hybrid cease-fire, which is a kind of follow up of the hybrid war; what we need [is] a real bilateral cease-fire," he said.
Klimkin also called for the release of what he said are "up to 500" hostages held by the separatists. Kerry also called for their release and for other steps to ease civilians' suffering in separatist-controlled areas.