US, Russia, and EU meet over Ukraine crisis
Foreign Ministers representing the US, Russia, and the European Union are meeting today in Geneva to discuss ways to defuse the tensions created by the crisis in Ukraine and Russian troops poised on the border ready to invade.
The talks will seek to contain the escalating crisis and start a process to ease tensions before Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, but no sudden breakthroughs are expected, Western officials said.
Diplomats said the test is to design a package of steps that can win Russian buy-in without pressing Kiev into political changes it doesn't want. Moscow has backed a call by pro-Russian separatists to give Ukraine's eastern provinces much greater autonomy from Kiev.
"This will be the first opportunity for this contact group to meet," said White House spokesman Jay Carney late Wednesday. "And we expect the conversation to focus on the need to de-escalate, the need for Russia to demobilize its troop presence on the border with Ukraine, the need for armed separatist groups within Ukraine to disband and disarm."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday morning the Geneva talks are a chance to find compromise on Ukraine, but he accused the Kiev government of committing a "serious crime" for sending troops into the east.
The U.S. and the EU sought to raise the ante on Russia to engage in meaningful talks. Mr. Carney said the U.S. had "additional sanctions prepared and we'll impose them as appropriate."
The EU is currently deciding how many Russian officials to add to a travel ban and asset freeze list and the bloc's executive. The European Commission on Wednesday sent details to member states about possible broader sanctions measures, although there are divisions over what could trigger this next phase of restrictions.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also said Wednesday it would increase its flights over the Baltic nations and send ships to the Mediterranean and Baltic seas in response to Russia's threat to Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly denied it is directly involved in the latest violence in eastern Ukraine and said it has troops on the border only as part of a military exercise.
Wednesday evening, acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deschchytsia told CNBC he hoped the talks will produce "a de-escalation on the ground."
"It's always possible if there's a will," he said.
Ukraine's acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said Monday that a referendum could be held alongside the presidential election vote that could pave the way for greater regional autonomy.
If you haven't noticed, the agenda items up for discussion are Russian ideas on how to solve the crisis. The only thing left for the US and EU is to decide how much they will cave in to the Russian proposals.
The Ukrainian government is being humiliated in the east as their much touted "counteroffensive" has pretty much fizzled out:
A military operation that the Ukrainian government said would confront pro-Russian militants in the east of the country unraveled in disarray on Wednesday with the entire contingent of 21 armored vehicles that had separated into two columns surrendering or pulling back before nightfall. It was a glaring humiliation for the new government in Kiev.
Though gunshots were fired throughout the day, and continued sporadically through the evening in this town that is occupied by pro-Russian militants, it was unclear whether anybody had been wounded.
One of the armored columns stopped when a crowd of men drinking beer and women yelling taunts and insults gathered on the road before them, and later in the day its commander agreed to hand over the soldiers’ assault rifles to the very separatists they were sent to fight.
A national guard outpost was attacked overnight. Three separatists were reportedly killed in the action.
More sanctions are on the table but they would only expand the list of individuals who would have their assets frozen and banned from traveling to the west. The meeting in Geneva is an acknowledgment that sanctions are not going to get Moscow to pull back and salvaging the situation with some kind of face saving referendums in eastern provinces is about the best that the US and its allies can hope for.