The United States and Russia have failed to resolve a Cold War-style crisis sparked by Moscow’s intervention in Crimea and the Ukrainian peninsula’s referendum on joining Kremlin rule.
US Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on Friday with few hopes Sunday’s Moscow-backed referendum in the strategic Black Sea peninsula could be averted or delayed.
But US officials said they still expected Moscow to avoid taking the extra step of actually annexing the region of two million mostly Russian speakers in a move that would escalate the biggest East-West showdown since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
Lavrov however told reporters after more than three hours of talks with Kerry in London, Russia and the West were still far apart on Ukraine.
“We have no common vision of the situation, differences remain,” he said.
Moscow “has no, and cannot have, any plans to invade the southeast region of Ukraine” where Russian speakers mostly reside, Lavrov said. Yet he hinted of Moscow’s resolve to put Crimea under its eventual control.
The Kremlin simultaneously issued a statement saying President Vladimir Putin had told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Crimea’s decision to conduct the referendum was “in full accordance with the norms of international law and the UN Charter”.
Kerry characterised his talks with Lavrov as “very direct, very frank”.
“Neither we nor the international community will recognise the results of this referendum,” he said, adding that if it takes place, “there will be some sanctions, there will be some response”.
Kerry said President Barack Obama had already “made it clear that there will be consequences” if Russia fails to take immediate steps to resolve the flaring crisis on the EU’s eastern frontier.
“We would like to see actions and not words that (Russia) is diminishing its presence in Ukraine,” the top US diplomat said.
Ukraine meanwhile remained a tinderbox as more than 8000 Russian troops staged drills near its eastern border while NATO and US reconnaissance aircraft and fighters patrolled the skies of the ex-Soviet state’s EU neighbours to the west.
Kerry has warned Russia Washington and Europe could announce a “very serious” response as early as Monday if Moscow does not pull back the troops who seized control of Crimea days after the pro-Kremlin regime fell in Kiev last month.
Yet Russia still refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the Western-leaning team that has taken power in Kiev – a move threatening to shatter Putin’s dream of rebuilding a Soviet-type empire.
Deadly violence returned this week to Ukraine for the first time since nearly 90 people were killed in a week of carnage before the fall of the pro-Moscow regime as a pro-Kiev protester was stabbed to death in the mostly Russian-speaking city of Donetsk.
The local health service said a 22-year-old man died and 16 people were wounded in unrest that erupted when pro-Kiev demonstrators were attacked by pro-Moscow protesters.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov blamed the death on separatists “sent in” from Russia.
Sunday’s vote gives residents of Crimea only two choices: joining Russia or “the significant strengthening of their autonomy within Ukraine”.