PARIS — Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart agreed Sunday that a political solution was needed for Ukraine and said they planned to continue discussions on ways to de-escalate the crisis. But neither side claimed a breakthrough, and Russia did not commit itself to pull back the more than 40,000 troops the United States said are massed near Ukraine.
“Both of us recognize the importance of finding a diplomatic solution and simultaneously meeting the needs of the Ukrainian people, and that we agreed on tonight,” Kerry told reporters after meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.
In a separate news conference, Lavrov said he and Kerry agreed to work on securing the rights of minorities and “linguistic rights” in Ukraine, which has a large ethnic Russian population.
US officials said Kerry’s strategy in the four-hour meeting was to make the case that Ukrainian officials were already taking steps to address Russia’s core concerns, which included the rights of the Russian-speaking population, the demobilization of militias, and constitutional reforms. They said that there appeared to be some acknowledgment of this on the Russian side.
Kerry also said he outlined some ideas for President Vladimir Putin of Russia to consider that might lead to a reduction of the Russian forces near Ukraine. But it was far from clear how Putin might respond.
Nor was there headway in resolving differences over Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed despite vigorous protests from Ukraine and Western nations.
Kerry and Lavrov have not set a date to meet again.
‘Moscow wants to create opportunities to meddle in Ukraine’s internal politics.’Steven Pifer, former US ambassador in Ukraine
Kerry’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, which was held at the stately residence of the Russian ambassador here, was arranged after Putin called President Obama on Friday to discuss the latest US proposal to resolve the crisis.
Both sides appeared eager for the meeting to occur. For the Americans, even a hint of progress might provide the space and time to search for a political solution. For the Russians, the appearance of flexibility could aid its effort to stop the West from imposing tougher sanctions over Crimea and to discourage NATO’s interest in taking more resolute steps.
NATO foreign ministers are to meet Tuesday and Wednesday to decide how to bolster the alliance’s military posture, reassure Eastern European members, and assist Ukraine, whose dilapidated military is no match for that of the Russians.
Coming into the Sunday meeting, both Russian and US officials telegraphed their support for constitutional changes in Ukraine that would safeguard the rights of the Russian-speaking population there.
But although the two sides have been using the same terminology, experts cautioned that it appeared to mask divergent visions over the future of Ukraine and its degree of independence from Moscow.
Is the aim of a new federal system to empower local officials and give provinces that are largely made up of Russian speakers more of a say over taxation and other regional affairs, as US officials suggest?
Or is the goal to establish largely autonomous regions that would be under the influence of Moscow and that would hold a veto over national matters like those involving foreign policy, an outcome that Western officials say Putin appears to have in mind?
“Ukraine’s government structure has always been overly centralized in Kiev,” said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as the US ambassador in Ukraine from 1998 to 2000.
“The president, for example, appoints provincial governors,” Pifer added. “Some diffusion of power from Kiev to provincial capitals to deal with regional issues would likely promote more efficient, effective, and accountable governance. But we should be leery of the Russian position. Moscow does not care about more efficient governance; it wants to create opportunities to meddle in Ukraine’s internal politics.”
According to the Russian plan put forward early this month, Ukraine’s political system would be federalized. Under that system, governors would be elected, Lavrov said in an interview on Russian television before the meeting with Kerry. And the regions they governed, he added, would have “wide powers” to set economic policy, organize education, and establish “economic and cultural ties with neighboring countries.”
Lavrov said Moscow did not believe that the single-state model worked in Ukraine, but he denied the widespread accusation that Russia wanted to use a federal form of government to carve up the country.
“Federalization does not mean, as is feared in Kiev or other places, an attempt to split Ukraine,” the Russian minister said. “But only an agreement to respect each region, its traditions, its customs, its culture, and its language — only this will secure the unity and stability of the Ukrainian state.”
He also pushed for the government in Kiev to include representatives from the east and south of the country, with their heavily ethnic Russian populations, in any reform process. Russian would be made an official language, along with Ukrainian, under the Russian plan. And Ukraine’s constitution, Lavrov added, would formally ensure that the country could never “be part of any bloc” like NATO.