Kerry, Lavrov talks flounder as Crimea independence vote looms

Russia says it will ‘respect’ outcome of Crimea referendum but stays silent on whether it would annex region

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting in London on Friday to discuss the crisis in Crimea.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

As the United States attempts to drum up support for a United Nations Security Council draft resolution that would dismiss Sunday's referendum on independence for Ukraine's Crimea region as illegal, talks between Washington's and Moscow's top diplomats broke up on Friday with seemingly no progress on the Crimean crisis.

Speaking in London after several hours of meetings with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that Russia would respect the result of the referendum. He added that Russia had no intention of invading eastern Ukraine, as fears mounted after Russian military exercises along the border with Ukraine.

"We will respect the expression of the will of the Crimean people in the upcoming referendum," Lavrov told reporters, though he did not say whether Russia would annex an independent Crimea, as leaders in the Russian parliament have indicated.

Kerry said talks with his Russian counterpart were constructive "because we dug into Russia's perceptions." But he also said Lavrov made it clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not make any decisions until after the referendum.

"There will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course. We don't say that as a threat. We say that as a direct consequence of what decision Russia makes," Kerry said. "Neither we nor the international community will recognize the results of the referendum."

Click here for more coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.

The White House, meanwhile, reiterated the threat of additional sanctions against Russia on top of those introduced last week should the referendum proceed.

"We stand ready to respond should the referendum go forward on Sunday," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. Asked how soon the response would come, he said, "I think without putting too fine a point on it, I'd say quickly."

Russia on Thursday vowed to veto the U.S. draft resolution — a move that could serve to highlight Moscow's international isolation on Crimea.

Several Western diplomats have said they hope that China, which has joined Russia in vetoing three council resolutions on Syria since 2011, would distance itself this time from Moscow and abstain. If that happens, which is far from certain, Moscow would likely be left as the sole vetoing permanent Security Council member.

On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he still hoped for a diplomatic solution but warned of consequences if diplomacy did not succeed. Meanwhile, Moscow-based news agency Interfax reported that a senior Russian diplomat had already determined that the proposed U.N. resolution was unacceptable. The U.N. vote is expected to take place Saturday.

Speaking after holding talks with Kerry and Lavrov, British Foreign Minister William Hague said he believed both were “seriously committed” to making progress, adding that it was not too late for the referendum to be canceled.

"But the fact that so far Russia has not taken any actual action to de-escalate the tensions makes this a formidably difficult task today," Hague said in London.

Diplomats said Thursday the Security Council resolution would urge countries not to recognize the results of the vote in Crimea, whose parliament has already voted to join Russia.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said after a meeting of the 15-member Security Council that the resolution was aimed at changing Russian calculations "before innocent lives are lost.”

She described the referendum, which is expected to overwhelmingly back Crimea's unification with Russia, as "hastily planned, unjustified and divisive" and a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. She said time was running out for a peaceful solution to the crisis, and she urged Russia to listen to the "remarkably unified" voices of 14 members of the Security Council and the Ukrainian people.

In a telephone call with U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon on Friday, Putin countered accusations that Russia was violating international law by supporting the Crimean referendum. Putin "underscored that the decision to conduct [the referendum] fully corresponds to the norms of international law and the U.N. Charter," the Kremlin said.

Lavrov on Friday said that if a special case was made by the U.S. and other Western powers in favor of Kosovo's independence in 2008, the same should be done for Crimea.

He also drew comparisons to other overseas territories that belong to Western countries.

“Are there precedents in international law? There are precedents, of course. Everybody understands that Crimea for Russia is something really important, what it means for Russia,” Lavrov told reporters. "It means immeasurably more for Russia than the Falklands means for the United Kingdom or Comoros for France."

Western powers had originally hoped to vote on the resolution at Thursday's council session, which was attended by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim Ukrainian prime minister.

He appealed for the world body's help. But Russia, one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the Security Council, made clear that it opposed the draft, so a decision was made to postpone the vote until Saturday at the latest to allow time for further negotiations.

China's U.N. ambassador, Liu Jieyi, said China was urging restraint by all sides and calling for a resolution through political and diplomatic means.

"China supports the constructive efforts and the good offices of the international community in order to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine," he told the council. "We are open to all proposals and plans that would contribute to mitigating the tension."

China has an aversion to separatism because of its own issues involving Tibet, Taiwan and other regions. It has voiced support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity during Security Council sessions on the crisis, although diplomats said it was not entirely certain Beijing would break from Russia on Ukraine.

On the ground, Russia conducted new military maneuvers near its border with Ukraine on Thursday, and Russian President Vladimir Putin said the world should not blame his country for what he called Ukraine's "internal crisis."

Russia's Defense Ministry announced that thousands of Russian troops in the western regions of Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and Tambov bordering Ukraine were involved in the exercises, which will continue until the end of the month. In the southern Rostov region, the exercises involved parachuting in 1,500 troops, the ministry said.

The drills included the military conducting large artillery exercises involving 8,500 soldiers and artillery and rocket systems in the south.

Across the border, violence engulfed Crimea's eastern Donetsk region, where clashes between pro-Russia demonstrators and supporters of the Ukrainian government left a 22-year-old man dead. At least 15 others were being treated in a Donetsk hospital, Ukrainian health authorities said.

Responding to the violence in the mainly Russian-speaking city, the Russian Foreign Ministry repeated its threat to intervene in Ukraine if Kiev failed to rein in the unrest.

"Russia is aware of its responsibility for the lives of compatriots and fellow citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take people under its protection," it said.

Crimea residents, meanwhile, lined up at their banks on Friday to withdraw cash from their accounts amid uncertainty over the future of the peninsula.

Russia's stock market also tumbled and the cost of insuring its debt soared on the last day of trading before the referendum, which will almost certainly bring additional EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia.

Raimonda Murmokaite, the Lithuanian ambassador, whose country was once part of the Soviet Union, said Russia's actions were having a chilling effect.

"One can only imagine the shudders this is sending across the entire region whose memories of the recent Soviet occupations and invasions are still very much alive," she said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter