U.S. and Russia hit roadblock trying to start Crimea talks
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration’s effort to solicit Russia’s help to defuse the crisis in Ukraine appeared to hit a dead end on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry delayed an anticipated trip to Russia and the two sides issued dueling accounts of their recent diplomacy.
Apparently in an effort to portray the United States as the intransigent party, the Kremlin took the unusual step of televising a brief exchange between President Vladimir V. Putin and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei V. Lavrov, in which they complained that Kerry had spurned an invitation to come to Russia for consultations.
The State Department responded by rushing out a statement saying that it was the Russians who were not prepared to engage in discussions on the United States’ proposals, especially the idea that they meet with officials from the new Ukrainian government.
“We are still awaiting a Russian response to the concrete questions that Secretary Kerry sent Foreign Minister Lavrov on Saturday in this regard,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The administration’s efforts to enlist Russia’s support involved several phone calls by President Barack Obama to Putin. But it moved into high gear last week when Kerry went to Europe and met with Western foreign ministers, Ukrainian officials and Lavrov, twice.
The basic Western strategy was to form a “contact group” that would include the United States, European nations, Russia, Ukraine and international organizations. That would be a way, U.S. officials calculated, to hammer out a common strategy on Ukraine and to bring Russian and Ukrainian officials together for their first face-to-face meeting on the crisis.
But Russia has not accepted the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.
On Thursday, Obama told Putin that Kerry was prepared to hold further talks with Lavrov on how a contact group might work, according to a senior administration official who declined to be identified because the official was discussing diplomatic exchanges.
On Friday, Kerry presented the Russian foreign minister with a one-page paper that outlined American and European ideas for solving the crisis, a paper that Lavrov could present to the Russian president.
That same day, Lavrov invited Kerry to Sochi, Russia, where he could see Putin, who was there for the Paralympic Games. Kerry indicated that he would consider the idea.
Even as the invitation was made, however, U.S. officials became concerned that Russia was doubling down in Crimea. Encouraged by Russia, the local Parliament was pushing for secession, a move endorsed by Russian lawmakers. To U.S. officials, the hope for a diplomatic breakthrough appeared to be undercut by Russian actions on the ground.