PARIS — Talks on the Ukraine crisis between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart bore no tangible fruit Wednesday but Kerry said that they at least established that Russia wants to avoid a broader military conflict.
“This is hard, tough stuff and a very serious moment. I would rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,’’ Kerry said at a press conference at the US ambassador’s residence in Paris.
It was not an unexpected end to a day of intense diplomacy, with the two sides engineering a new phase of the East-West relationship, a big test for the post-Cold War era.
Kerry’s motorcade of up to 10 vehicles wound through Paris several times, as he shuttled from meeting to meeting, to the residences of the American and Russian ambassadors, to the Elysee Palace for a meeting with the French president, and also to a swanky hotel, where he huddled with the president of Lebanon to discuss a growing crisis of Syrian refugees in that country.
By late afternoon, Russia’s takeover of the Crimea peninsula in Ukraine dominated his full attention. He met twice with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. A slight shift in tone followed the meetings. Kerry abandoned his rhetoric of just the day before when, in Kiev, he accused Russia of trying to generate a “pretext’’ for a bigger invasion of Ukraine. On Wednesday he said the preliminary talks in Paris showed that Russia wanted to avoid violence.
Without elaborating, Kerry said issues were discussed that both sides would bring back to their respective capitals to consider.
“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation,’’ Kerry said. “Russia indicated that they would prefer to see us find that path.’’
The conversations in Paris coincided with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that the United States was sending six F-15 jets to patrol the skies above Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
In another example of increasing tensions, the United Nations reported that one of its envoys in Crimea had been threatened at gunpoint by up to 15 men, after he left a meeting at a Russian Navy base.
The European Union, meanwhile, moved to prop up Ukraine’s economy, offering a $15 billion package of grants and loans. The United States had previously announced $1 billion in loan guarantees for the troubled nation.
Ukrainian officials have said that they would need $35 billion in new loans and credits over the next two years to avoid default.
Kerry met earlier Wednesday with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and the Ukrainian acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, seeking to build leverage against Russia under terms of a 1994 agreement called the Budapest memorandum.
That pact provided assurances — not guarantees — that Ukraine’s “independence and sovereignty and the existing borders’’ would be respected by Russia, the United States, and Great Britain in exchange for Ukraine surrendering its stockpile of old Soviet nuclear arms. For the Russians, it was signed by then-President Boris Yeltsin.
No one from Russia appeared Wednesday to discuss how its Crimean takeover should be viewed in the context of the Budapest memorandum. The leaders who did attend issued a joint statement warning Russia in vague terms for violating the document’s assurances.
“The three governments treat these assurances with utmost seriousness, and expect Russia to as well. Russia has chosen to act unilaterally and militarily,’’ the statement said.
“Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,’’ it continued, “can only degrade Russia’s international standing and lead to greater political and economic consequences.”
Before he flew to Paris, Lavrov offered Russia’s take on the Budapest memorandum: Western countries may have violated it by supporting sanctions against Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“Holders of sovereignty are the president, and other members of the Ukrainian leadership that have been sanctioned long ago by the US, in particular,’’ Lavrov said, as quoted by Itar-Tass, the Russian news agency.
Pro-Kremlin media in Russia have pointed out Russia’s long-standing claims to Crimea, and any settlement is sure to require clarification of the level of control Russia is able to exert there. US officials said previously that 6,000 Russian troops were in Crimea, and Ukrainian officials have estimated there are now 16,000.
The peninsula was given to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and it stayed in Ukraine when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, despite the continued presence of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in its ports. The news site RT, in a multi-point rebuttal to US charges that Ukraine’s sovereignty had been violated, pointed out that the Russian presence in Crimea dated to at least 1783, when the port of Sevastapol was “founded’’ by Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin.
Although Kerry brought the acting Ukrainian foreign minister to Paris aboard his own jet, the minister, Deshchytsia, did not participate in meetings with the Russian minister, Lavrov.
In response to a question, Kerry said that did not represent any diplomatic failure and that he did not expect such a meeting to occur.
“We brought him here because we knew it was inappropriate for us to have discussions with minister Lavrov . . . without the appropriate consultation and involvement and sign off from the people who are concerned,’’ Kerry said. “This is a Ukrainian decision.’’