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Pressure On To Find "Off-Ramp" For Ukraine Crisis

PARIS -- Top diplomats from the major players trying to find an end to the crisis in Ukraine were to gather in Paris Wednesday as tensions simmered over the Russian military takeover of the strategic Crimean Peninsula.


Speaking in Madrid just hours before the meetings in Paris, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated Moscow's stance that Ukraine's newly installed president, and the uprising which forced his predecessor, Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, to flee Kiev, were "illegitimate."


Lavrov said Russia could not order pro-Russian armed groups in Crimea to return to their bases because they are Ukrainian "self-defense" forces which do not answer to Moscow.


"If you mean the self-defense units created by residents of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," he told the news conference shown live on Russian state television.


"As for the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites," Lavrov said, referring to a Russian naval unit based in Crimea. "Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites.


"We will do everything to prevent bloodshed, and obviously we will defend everybody in Ukraine, including citizens of the Russian federation."


He also said it was up to Crimean and Ukrainian authorities to decide whether to grant international monitors access to the region. There have been suggestions of a possible diplomatic "off-ramp" in recent days; a proposal for Russian forces to agree to remain on their bases and for international monitors to enter Crimea to help guarantee the safety of ethnic Russians in the region.


Lavrov accused the west of setting a "bad example" by supporting the anti-Russian uprising in Kiev which eventually toppled Yanukovych.


Moscow has insisted that any military action it takes in Crimea would be for the sole purpose of protecting those civilians and its military interests in the region.


Lavrov's claim that Russian troops have stayed on their bases conflicts, however, with claims from the new government in Kiev -- which accuses Russian of an outright "invasion" -- and from independent journalists, who have reported a number of Ukrainian military installations in the region being taken over or surrounded by apparent Russian troops.


While many pro-Russian civilians have taken to the streets in Crimea this week, engaging in tense standoffs with Ukrainian forces, they are not the same as the well-organized, well and uniformly-armed military or militia units that have patrolled areas around key military sites -- albeit without any insignia on their fatigues to prove they are Russian.


The envoys from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and France were not necessarily to meet around the same table Wednesday in Paris, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said everyone had been working non-stop for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.


"We have a principle of firmness but at the same time of searching for dialogue," Fabius said as he stood alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, making his first trip abroad in the new post.


Russia took over Crimea on Saturday, placing troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts.


"Today the Ukrainian future will be decided," Andriy Deshchytsia, Ukraine's foreign minister, said of the meetings in Paris. "We want to keep neighborly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully."


Wednesday's gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, but the crisis is far from resolved.


Ukraine is near bankruptcy, and the European Union's executive arm was supposed to decide Wednesday on a package of support measures to add to a $1 billion energy subsidy package promised by the U.S. to Kiev on Tuesday.


The aid for Kiev was part of a two-pronged approach announced by the White House on Tuesday to ramp up pressure on Moscow; the other prong being the threat of direct sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate the situation.


 


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