Secretary of State John F. Kerry rejected an invitation last weekend to travel to Russia to discuss the Ukraine crisis with President Vladi­mir Putin, saying the Russians needed first to stop their military advance in Crimea and open talks with the new Ukrainian government, administration officials said.

The U.S. demands were sent in the form of a page and a half of questions to the Russian government Saturday night, according to officials. In addition to military de-escalation, the document asked whether Putin’s government would use its influence to put the brakes on a Crimean referendum, scheduled for this coming Sunday, proposing annexation by Russia.

Officials who provided a chronology of diplomatic back-and-forth since Putin spoke with President Obama by telephone Thursday said they had seen no sign that the Russians intend to take the exit ramp the United States and its European partners have proposed.

Instead, they described a worsening situation on the ground in Crimea, no diplomatic progress, and full determination by the West to move ahead with economic sanctions if annexation goes forward.

By Monday afternoon, the only answer from Moscow was a report on Russian television showing Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov together in Sochi, the Russian resort where the Paralympic Games are underway.

In the television clip, Lavrov told Putin that the United States had submitted “unsatisfactory” proposals and that the proposals used the “coup” in Ukraine and the legitimacy of its interim government as their starting point.

Lavrov said Russia had prepared its own proposals, an apparent reference to Russian insistence that Ukraine and its Western backers recognize a Feb. 21 agreement negotiated with the previous, Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych. The West — and the interim government that replaced Yanukovych — declared that agreement null and void after he fled, without signing it, to Russia.

Ukraine’s interim prime minister,
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is due in Washington on Wednesday for meetings with Obama and other administration officials.

The latest round of diplomacy began last week when Kerry and Lavrov met in Paris and Rome for discussions on Ukraine. Kerry and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany held separate meetings in Paris with Ukraine’s interim foreign minister.

Lavrov, who U.S. officials said appeared to have no negotiating instructions from his government, refused to sit down with the Ukrainian.

In Rome on Wednesday, Kerry presented Lavrov with a document summarizing the position of the West and Ukraine, including a proposal for international mediators to investigate Russian claims that ethnic Russians were being abused by Ukrainian nationalists in the autonomous region of Crimea.

When Obama spoke to Putin on Thursday, the White House said, they agreed that Lavrov and Kerry would continue communications toward de-escalation.

On Friday morning, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the diplomatic back-and-forth, Lavrov telephoned Kerry to propose that Kerry travel to Sochi to speak with Putin. Kerry said he would have to consult in Washington, the officials said, noting that Russian military advances in Crimea and the approaching referendum were making a diplomatic solution increasingly difficult.

Kerry, the officials said, referred to continued Russian deployments of troops and materiel into Crimea — deployments Russia has denied — and a sharp escalation in Russia’s rhetorical support for what the United States considered an illegal referendum, including reports that the Russian parliament was preparing legislation to annex Crimea.

When Kerry called Lavrov back on Saturday, the officials said, he noted that their presidents had agreed that discussions would continue on the diplomatic level, and asked that Lavrov be empowered to do so.

Without some progress toward de-
escalation, Kerry said, there was no point in his speaking with Putin. Kerry indicated that he was sending Lavrov a list of questions for the Russian minister to discuss with Putin and that he would await Russia’s response.

In public statements Monday, U.S. officials emphasized that there was still time for Russia to back away from confrontation. “We have been working with our partners to make clear to the Russians that there is an avenue available to them that would allow for an international effort to monitor and ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, including ethnic Russians,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney.

Carney did not directly answer when asked whether Putin was at all receptive to that argument.

“We are making clear to Moscow that we understand that Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine, not least of course the Black Sea Fleet,” based in Crimea, “but also concerns about ethnic Russians, and we recognize those concerns,” Carney said.

In Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe questioned widespread Russian media reports that Crimea’s self-declared government had invited OSCE monitors to observe the referendum. OSCE officials said they were unaware of any such request and noted that only the member government in question can make it. In the case of Crimea, the request would have to come from the government of Ukraine, which is unlikely to request international monitors for a vote whose legitimacy it does not recognize.

Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.

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