PARIS — The United States and Russia reached no agreement Sunday on how to defuse the crisis over Russia’s annexation of a Ukrainian territory and its massing of troops for possible further moves against the neighboring country, but they agreed to continue talking.
Tens of thousands of Russian forces poised near eastern Ukraine are “creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine” and raising questions about Russia’s next move and its commitment to diplomacy, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said after several hours of talks with Russia’s top diplomat.
“We have some ideas. We have proposals that both sides made,” Kerry said, but he acknowledged that the United States cannot force Russia to pull back its forces.
“The troops are in Russia. They are on Russian soil,” Kerry told reporters. “The question is not one of right or legality; the question is one of strategic appropriateness and whether it is smart at this moment in time to have that number of troops massed on the border when you’re trying to send a message that you want to de-escalate.”
It was clear that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had made no promises about pulling troops back from the border and that Russia has no intention of withdrawing from Crimea, the strategic Black Sea territory it annexed two weeks ago.
But both nations support diplomatic solutions and “meeting the needs of the Ukrainian population,” Kerry said.
Lavrov said at a separate briefing that the discussion was “very, very constructive” and that he and Kerry agreed to work with the Ukrainian government to improve rights for Russian-speaking Ukrainians and disarm “irregular forces and provocateurs.”
The United States and Russia were seeking to calm a bitter confrontation that has included the toughest U.S. economic penalties on Russia since the end of the Cold War.
At stake is the rising war of words between the West and Russia over the military incursion and annexation of Crimea. The United States does not recognize the annexation, which is unlikely to be reversed soon, if at all.
Kerry and Lavrov’s talks were focused less on Crimea and more on preventing further confrontation. For the United States, that means stopping Russian military moves where they are.
The Obama administration believes that the sanctions are biting and that Russia is trying to prevent further economic penalties. The United States and the European Union have threatened further measures if Russia invades eastern Ukraine.
Also Sunday, the Pentagon said the top U.S. general in Europe has been sent back early from a trip to Washington because of Russia’s “lack of transparency” about troop movements along the Ukraine border.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, who is both NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe and the head of the U.S. military’s European Command, arrived in Europe on Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before Congress this week.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “made the decision Friday evening amidst growing uncertainty in Ukraine,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
“While it does not foreshadow imminent military action in Ukraine, the general’s return will allow him more time” and flexibility, Kirby said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had proposed the Kerry-Lavrov meeting Friday in a surprise phone call to President Obama. Wary U.S. officials said that the diplomatic outreach was welcome but that there has been no sign that Russia is taking steps to pull back forces from locations along the Russia-Ukraine border, as the West has demanded.
The Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, said Sunday that Russia has no intention of withdrawing from Crimea.
“Crimea is a part of [the] Russian Federation,” Kislyak said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
Kerry went into the meeting with low expectations. U.S. officials said they did not expect quick agreement on the main issues dividing Washington and Moscow, but Kerry clearly hoped to ease tensions ahead of a meeting of NATO nations this week. The gathering of foreign ministers is not expected to include Russia and will be dominated by the Ukraine crisis.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Sunday that troop movements show that Putin is “absolutely not looking for a way out” of the tensions.
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Rogers said Russia has moved some of its most advanced equipment into South Ossetia, a disputed region near the border of Georgia and Russia.
Russia says the troops are part of normal exercises and a safeguard against what it calls extremism in Ukraine that might threaten ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the country’s east.
Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula, has a majority Russian-speaking population and was long oriented toward Moscow. Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum that the United States called a sham. The Russian move followed months of political upheaval in Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, sparked by tension over whether its government would form an economic association with Moscow or the European Union. Russian forces moved into Crimea after Ukraine’s moderately pro-Russian government in Kiev fell and was replaced by a temporary coalition that pledged to create a modern economy, root out corruption and look toward the West.
Ahead of the session Sunday at the home of Russia’s ambassador to France, Lavrov told Russian state television that there were no plans for further military moves.
“We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders,” Lavrov said Saturday. Referring to the unfolding diplomacy, he added, “We are getting closer in our positions.”
The talks in Paris do not suggest a change in the Russian position, said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
“They would like to achieve their objectives at the negotiating table rather than on the battlefield, but the buildup on the border both strengthens their hand and leaves them a ready military option to turn to if the talks don’t get them what they want,” Charap said Sunday.
The White House said Obama had asked for a written Russian response to diplomatic proposals on Ukraine that Kerry had presented to Lavrov at their meeting last week. It was not clear whether Lavrov was carrying that response to Paris or whether he had new latitude to negotiate.
Kerry was not making new proposals, U.S. officials said, but the contents of his written offer to Lavrov have not been made public.
In general, the United States wants the Russian troops pulled back, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militias disarmed, a dialogue between Moscow and the new government in Kiev, joint efforts to support that government economically and diplomatically, and wider international monitoring inside Ukraine and Crimea.
Kerry and Lavrov were also discussing ways their countries could agree on new political measures in Ukraine that could decentralize some decision-making and perhaps give greater autonomy to Russian-speaking areas in the east.
Washington also wants Russian assurances that it will respect the Kiev government and not interfere in upcoming elections. Moscow wants the voting postponed; the United States wants it to go ahead in May as scheduled.
The United States and Europe have approved two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including travel bans and asset freezes on senior Russian officials as punishment for the seizure of Crimea.
The West has threatened tougher sanctions if Moscow invades eastern Ukraine.
On “This Week,” Kislyak said Ukraine needs to change its constitution to better respect regional differences within the nation.
“It’s a country that certainly needs a revision of the constitution that would include a mechanism where the regions would be heard and their views would be taken on board,” he said.
Kislyak echoed Lavrov, who said in the state television interview that Moscow wants federalism for Ukraine as a way to protect the rights of Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians.
“Frankly speaking, we don’t see any other way for the steady development of the Ukrainian state apart from as a federation,” Lavrov said.
Putin aired the Russian plan during Friday’s hour-long phone call with Obama. It would allow individual regions of Ukraine to separately control taxes, economic decisions, language, education and other matters.
The new leadership in Kiev sees that as a backdoor means of breaking up the country.
Russia wants U.S. and European economic sanctions lifted, but it was not clear whether the two diplomats would address that. The penalties were imposed to protest the annexation, and U.S. officials have said they will not be lifted unless Russia withdraws.
Lavrov played down the effect of sanctions ahead of his meeting with Kerry. Western leaders are considering broader sanctions targeting the vital energy sector. Oil and gas are Russia’s main export.
“I don’t want to say that sanctions are ridiculous and that we couldn’t care less. These are not pleasant things,” Lavrov told Russia’s Channel One. “We find little joy in that, but there are no painful sensations. We have lived through tougher times.”
In the ABC interview, Kislyak responded to Obama’s comment last week that Russia is a “regional power” acting out of weakness.
“If you consider Russia a regional power, look at the region that we are in — it’s from Europe to Asia,” the ambassador said. “It’s quite a significant region, in the first place. Secondly, I think that those categorizations are very artificial. We are a country with a lot of interests and a lot of things we can contribute throughout the world, but we are certainly not going to overstretch any way.”
Josh Hicks and Ernesto Londoño
in Washington contributed to this report.