By Lara Jakes and John Heilprin Associated Press
GENEVA — High-level talks aimed at calming soaring tensions over the crisis in Ukraine went into overtime on Thursday with top diplomats from the United States, European Union, Russia and Ukraine attempting to forge a common position on how to de-escalate the situation.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized the U.S. and its European allies for having what he called a double standard and said he hoped he would not have to deploy troops to Ukraine, a Russian official said participants in the four-way meeting were working on a “substantial” statement to be presented publicly.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russian’s foreign ministry, said diplomats have begun working on a possible statement with agreed upon points.
“They are working on something, a document or a statement. It could be given either in writing or orally,” she told The Associated Press as reporters awaited a news conference by Lavrov after more than four hours of talks at a luxury hotel. “It will have something substantial.”
Ukraine is hoping to use the Geneva talks — the first of their kind over the crisis that threatens the new government in Kiev — to placate Russia and calm hostilities with its neighbor even as the U.S. prepared a new round of sanctions to punish Moscow for what it regards as fomenting unrest.
Meanwhile, Russia was honing a strategy of its own: Push the West as far as possible without provoking crippling sanctions against its financial and energy sectors or a military confrontation with NATO.
Obama administration officials tamped down any expectations that the meetings in Geneva would yield a breakthrough or Russian concessions meaningful enough to avoid new U.S. penalties. And French President Francois Hollande said Thursday the goal was to de-escalate the situation, but that the West had alternatives.
“We can raise the level of sanctions if there isn’t a solution, but this isn’t what we want,” Hollande said in a statement from Paris. “What we want is to reach a de-escalation.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began his day with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Asked if he was expecting to make any progress Thursday, Kerry shrugged. He also met individually with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before all four of the top diplomats sat down together.
With Ukraine struggling to contain a pro-Russian uprising in its eastern region bordering Russia, the Obama administration is readying additional sanctions against Moscow and a boost in aid for the Ukrainian military in the coming days, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The sanctions likely will target more wealthy individuals close to Putin and the entities they run, while military aid could include medical supplies and clothing.
“Each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, there are going to be consequences,” President Barack Obama said Wednesday in an interview with CBS News. “Mr. Putin’s decisions aren’t just bad for Ukraine. Over the long term, they’re going to be bad for Russia.”
On Thursday, Putin denied claims that Russian special forces were fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine. He called the Ukrainian government’s effort to quash the uprising a “crime.”
The U.S. military aid was expected to stop short of body armor and other equipment for Ukraine’s troops. Additionally, the Obama administration is reluctant to send weapons and ammunition, as Kiev has requested, amid fears that lethal supplies would be seen as an escalatory step by the U.S. and trigger a more aggressive response from the estimated 40,000 Russian forces massed on its border with Ukraine.
Despite the diplomatic freeze between Moscow and Kiev, a senior State Department official said Ukraine’s negotiators planned to try to assuage Russia’s concerns during Thursday’s talks. Deshchytsia and his team were expected to brief Russia and the other diplomats on what Kiev was doing to transfer more power from the central government to the regions, including letting local areas keep more of their funding and elect their own leaders.
The Ukraine diplomats were prepared to field questions from negotiators and even seek Russia’s advice on how to quell concerns in Moscow about the rights of Russian-speaking minorities in Ukraine and the approaching May 25 presidential elections to ensure they are inclusive for all candidates.
Ukraine’s outreach during Thursday’s talks will help test whether Russia is willing to respond to a diplomatic solution to the crisis, said the U.S. official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Brussels, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the military alliance would increase its presence in Eastern Europe, including flying more sorties over the Baltic region west of Ukraine and deploying allied warships to the Baltic Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. NATO’s supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, told reporters that ground forces also could be involved at some point, but gave no details.
So far, the military movements and two initial rounds of sanctions against Russians and Ukrainians accused by the West of stirring up the unrest have done little to ease tensions.
Officials said a full-scale Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine would result in broad U.S. and European sanctions on key Russian economic sectors, including its powerful energy industry. However, European nations are divided on whether to limit its access to Russia’s oil and gas supplies, and a vote to sanction must be unanimous among the EU’s 28 member states.
The sanctions that could be levied in the aftermath of the Geneva meeting were expected to focus on Putin’s close associates, including oligarchs who control much of Russia’s wealth, as well as businesses and other entities they control. It was unclear whether those sanctions would change Putin’s calculus, given that the U.S. and the Europeans already have launched targeted sanctions on people in Putin’s inner circle.