, MOSCOW, March 30- US Secretary of State John Kerry will hold impromptu talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Sunday, after Russia pledged not to invade mainland Ukraine following its seizure of Crimea.
The meeting in France comes amid heightened diplomatic efforts to resolving the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Tensions have run high since Moscow’s lightning takeover of Crimea from Ukraine, with the United States accusing Russia of massing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
But signs of progress have recently appeared, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling his US counterpart Barack Obama on Friday to discuss a US proposal for a diplomatic end to the standoff.
Lavrov suggested Moscow’s main demands were that Ukraine should become a federation, commit to not joining NATO and restore order to cities after almost half a year of street protests.
Putin also told Obama that the problems surrounding the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniestr — a Russian-speaking region seen by some as the Kremlin’s next target — should be solved not by force but by talks in the “5+2” format of Moldova, Transdniestr, the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine, with the EU and US as observers.
Ukraine is now at a crossroads after the fall of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February and the clock is ticking down to May 25 presidential elections which are expected to cement Kiev’s pro-West course.
With boxing champion turned politician Vitali Klitschko bowing out of the race, the overwhelming favourite to win the polls is pro-European confectionery tycoon Petro Poroshenko, although feisty former premier Yulia Tymoshenko is expected to mount an all-out campaign since declaring her candidacy this week.
– ‘No intention’ to invade –
Lavrov said Moscow had no intention of ordering its armed forces to cross over the Ukrainian border and acknowledged the divisions between Moscow and the West on the crisis were narrowing.
“We have absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border,” he told Russian state television.
“We (Russia and the West) are getting closer in our positions,” he added, saying recent contacts had shown the outlines of a “possible joint initiative which could be presented to our Ukrainian colleagues”, he added.
Lavrov made clear Russia’s priorities for Ukraine were a federalisation which would allow the interests of everyone in Ukraine including Russian speakers in the east and south to be fully represented.
He said Kiev should also commit to being non-aligned — with Ukrainian NATO membership clearly a red line for Moscow.
However a clear solution remained elusive.
“There is no single plan,” RIA Novosti quoted Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. “We have differing views of the situation. Our discussions involve an exchange of ideas, but one cannot say that we have some sort of single approach.”
– Lavrov-Kerry meeting –
The United States and European Union clearly want Russia to de-escalate tensions by removing the troops said to be surrounding Ukraine’s eastern borders.
Kiev this week estimated there were now 100,000 Russian soldiers positioned around Ukraine — a figure neither confirmed nor denied by Moscow.