KIEV — A day after the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, reached out to President Obama to try to peacefully resolve the standoff over Ukraine, Secretary of State John F. Kerry scrambled his travel plans to meet with his Russian counterpart in Paris on Sunday, according to a State Department official.
In an apparent bid to quiet tensions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov said Saturday that Russia and the United States and its Western allies were already narrowing their differences over a political and diplomatic solution to a crisis that intensified with Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea. The takeover amplified fears that Russia was massing troops on the border to seize more of Ukraine.
News of the diplomatic push came as Ukrainian leaders maneuvered ahead of a presidential election they hope will begin to calm the political upheaval that started with protests against then-president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted.
Vitali Klitschko, one of the best-known faces of the opposition to Yanukovych, said Saturday that he was abandoning his candidacy for president and would instead support the billionaire Petro Poroshenko.
Both men led the protests against Yanukovych’s tilt toward Moscow and have said they seek a stronger democracy and a more pro-Western path for the country.
“The presidential elections in Ukraine on May 25 should join society and not become another war of everyone against everyone,” Klitschko said at a meeting of his political party, the United Democratic Alliance for Reform. “This can be achieved only if you do not split the votes between the democratic candidates.”
The move by Klitschko, who enjoys wide name recognition because of his fame as a former champion boxer, could propel Poroshenko to a commanding lead in the election, where his most prominent contender will likely be Yulia V. Tymoshenko, the country’s former prime minister and a familiar figure in the country’s tumultuous opposition movement.
Klitschko said he would run instead for mayor of Kiev with a goal of transforming the city into a “truly European capital.”
Lavrov and Kerry spoke by telephone Saturday after Obama and Putin had promised new diplomacy. After the phone call, Kerry delayed his return to the United States and headed for Paris to meet Lavrov. Also on Saturday, Lavrov said in a television interview that Russia had “no intention” of sending troops to Ukraine, according to a transcript.
“We are bringing our approaches closer together,” he said. “My last meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in The Hague and my contacts with Germany, France, and some other countries show that a possible joint initiative that could be offered to our Ukrainian partners is taking shape.”
The Russian solution emphasizes a federation — allowing for greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine, with its heavy concentration of ethnic Russians. The emphasis on a federation is seen partly as an attempt to ensure that Ukraine does not coalesce into a strong pro-European, anti-Russian country right next door.
Lavrov rejected as “absolutely unacceptable” the formula devised by Western officials, whereby Russia and Ukraine would negotiate directly with each other under Western auspices. The Russians reject the current leadership in Kiev as illegitimate.
The crisis began after Yanukovych turned last year against closer trade and other ties with the West under pressure from Russia.
On Saturday, Poroshenko hailed the decision by Klitschko to step aside, saying it would serve the goals of the thousands of people who demonstrated for more than three months in hopes of putting Ukraine on the path to a pro-Western political future.
“It would be a betrayal if we did not unite,” Poroshenko said in a speech to the United Democratic Alliance for Reform congress Saturday.
On Thursday, Tymoshenko announced that she would run for president as the candidate of the Fatherland party. Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s archrival, spent 2½ years in prison on charges that her supporters and the West have long criticized as politically motivated. Yanukovych narrowly defeated her in Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election.
A spokesman for Tymoshenko, who was attending her own party congress Saturday, did not have an immediate response to Klitschko’s announcement.
Tymoshenko is by the far the best-known politician in the race and an extremely charismatic speaker. But she faces an uphill climb, given the public’s deep mistrust of anyone with long experience in government in a country with a history of corruption and mismanagement. Tymoshenko served twice as prime minister and has been a prominent political figure for more than a decade.
Russia has spoken out strongly against some prospective candidates in the presidential elections, especially Dmytro Yarosh, a right-wing activist who heads the Right Sector ultranationalist coalition.
Other candidates, such as Mikhail Dobkin, who was nominated Saturday by Yanukovych’s former party, have called for greater autonomy for regions from the central government, as pro-Russian sentiment in the east has grown in cities where many wish for closer ties with Moscow rather than Europe.
Another veteran politician, Sergei Tigipko, a former vice prime minister and head of the Ukrainian national bank and a Yanukovych ally, also recently declared his candidacy for president, as an independent.