Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in London on Friday for last-ditch talks with his Russian counterpart, though meetings began with little hope for halting Russian plans to annex the Crimea region of neighboring Ukraine or the inevitable U.S. sanctions such a move would bring.
Kerry’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov caps a week that saw the United States and Europe turbo-charging diplomacy in hopes of stopping a referendum Sunday in which Crimea residents will vote on whether to join Russia or remain a mostly autonomous part of Ukraine. Kerry and others in the administration have said plainly that Russia would face sanctions, even as early as Monday, if the vote proceeds as scheduled.
It's unclear whether that would cease negotiations or whether there still would be room for dialogue in the period between the vote and Moscow's formal, legal annexation of Crimea. “The question becomes: After the referendum, does Russia get serious about diplomacy? Is there further opportunity?” said a senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss diplomacy.
“We are prepared to leave the door open, but every step that they take forward will be met with costs,” the official added.
So far, neither overtures nor threats have swayed Russian President Vladimir Putin. He shows no sign of taking what the Obama administration calls the “offramp” option: sending Russian troops in Crimea back to their barracks and opening direct talks with Ukraine’s provisional government.
Instead, U.S. officials say, Putin is massing thousands of troops along the border in a snap exercise that Western observers fear is a signal of broader incursion, perhaps into eastern Ukraine. That would nudge the conflict into an even more dangerous period, with the prospect of Ukrainian-Russian combat as well as NATO forces entering the fray in a move to protect Ukraine’s neighbors.
“This is the second time inside of a month that Russia has chosen to mass large amounts of force on short notice, without much transparency, around the eastern borders of Ukraine,” said the senior State Department official. “It certainly creates an environment of intimidation. It certainly is destabilizing. And that’ll be one question that we’ll be asking: what is meant by this?”
Western observers worry that the land grab in Crimea is only the beginning of a campaign by Putin to reconstitute the Soviet Union. Putin, who famously lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union, says he’s merely protecting ethnic Russians in the power vacuum left by the deposed Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who was close to Moscow.
Putin has refused to open direct talks with Yanukovych’s successor, the Western-friendly interim government that will rule until after presidential elections that are scheduled for May. Interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was in Washington earlier this week on a high-profile trip that read as a show of U.S.-Ukrainian solidarity in the face of Russian aggression – hardly a reassuring move for Putin, who’s loathe to see a Kiev that isn’t aligned with its traditional patron, Moscow.
However, in remarks at the White House and at the Atlantic Council, Yatsenyuk also offered some conciliatory words for Putin. He said that the interim leadership seeks to preserve ties with Russia, but in a normal bilateral relationship and not an “incursion.” Yatsenyuk welcomed international monitors to help protect ethnic Russians and other minorities, and added that the Ukrainian Parliament was open to discussing in a more constitutional way options for Crimea’s future.
“They’re prepared to consider the highest possible degree of autonomy for Crimea inside of Ukraine,” the senior State Department official said. “But what they will not do is sacrifice the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”