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Wide gulf remains on Ukraine after Kerry-Lavrov Paris talk

Moscow says Ukraine should be split into autonomous regions, as US pressures Russia to withdraw troops from border

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said late on Sunday he and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, discussed suggestions for de-escalating the Ukraine crisis during four hours of talks in Paris.

Kerry told a news conference that the United States made clear it still considered Russian actions in Crimea to be "illegal and illegitimate."

He said he had also raised "strong concerns" about the presence of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, which he said created a climate of fear and intimidation.

But there still seems to be a wide gulf between Kerry’s views and those of his Russian counterpart. Lavrov on Sunday said that Ukraine can't function as a "unified state" and should be a loose federation of regions that choose their own economic model, language and religion.

Both Kerry and Lavrov said the U.S. and Russia would work together to quell tension in the region, but exactly how remains a mystery, given the large difference between what they see as the best possible outcome for Ukraine.

Still, Lavrov called the talks “very, very constructive.”

Lavrov said earlier on Russian TV that "if our Western partners are ready, then Russia, the United States and the European Union could form a support group on Ukraine and formulate shared appeals to those now in power in Kiev.”

This would lead to talks between "all Ukrainian political forces without exception, naturally excluding armed radicals" and would end in a new constitution allowing for a "federal structure" with greater regional autonomy, he said.

Moscow's federal plan would allow parts of Ukraine to declare Russian as a second official language and secure more independence from Kiev.

U.S. officials have said they are open to considering such an idea but that it must be acceptable to the Ukrainian people.

Lavrov acknowledged that his first talks with Ukraine's interim foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsya last week ended without any agreement on Moscow's federalization plan.

"Andriy Deshchytsya said our proposal was unacceptable because federalization contradicts the basic principles of Ukraine's state structure."

"I don't understand why. I don't know any such principles," Lavrov said.

The meeting between Kerry and Lavrov signifies that the U.S. and Moscow are trying to push forward to come to a compromise they can both accept.

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U.S. officials say their plan covers the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights, direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine and Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms.

Kerry and Lavrov have met several times in person and spoken by phone almost daily since the crisis began but have not yet been able to agree on a way forward. The pair met last week in The Hague, where Kerry presented Lavrov with the proposal.

Despite the diplomatic overtures between the two on Sunday, a concurrent development by the U.S. defense department suggested that the dispute is still one marked largely by tension.

America's top general in Europe was sent back early from a trip to Washington in what the Pentagon on Sunday called a prudent step given Russia's "lack of transparency" about troop movements across the border with Ukraine.

General Philip Breedlove, who is both NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the head of the U.S. military's European Command, arrived in Europe Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before Congress this week.

Meanwhile, Sunday's Kerry-Lavrov meeting follows an hour-long phone call Friday between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine's government is allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists is not happening.

That call did little to reassure U.S. officials that Russia is not planning to invade eastern parts of Ukraine after its annexation of the country's strategic Crimea peninsula, which the West has condemned as illegal and a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

On Saturday, however, Lavrov said on Russian state television that Moscow would not invade Ukraine, prompting Obama to instruct Kerry to set up a meeting with his Russian counterpart as soon as possible.

"We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine's borders," Lavrov said.

The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on senior Russian officials in response, sparking reciprocal moves from Moscow.

In an interview Sunday with Russian television, Lavrov called the sanctions a "dead-end" strategy that would not achieve results and accused the West of hypocrisy.

Lavrov said that while the sanctions had been disruptive, they were not something his country could not overcome.

"I don't want to say that sanctions are ridiculous and that we couldn't care less, these are not pleasant things," Lavrov told Russia's Channel One.

"We find little joy in that, but there are no painful sensations. We have lived through tougher times."

The two sides remain far apart, a situation underscored by the fact that the White House and the Kremlin offered starkly different summaries of the Obama-Putin call, which occurred while Obama was traveling in Saudi Arabia.

The contrasting interpretations highlighted the chasm between how Moscow and Washington perceive the escalating international standoff sparked by Russia's annexation of Crimea.

White House officials described the call as "frank and direct" and said Obama had urged Putin to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the U.S. has presented. He urged Moscow to scale back its troop buildup on the border with Ukraine, which has prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.

Russia maintains that its troops near the border are there for military exercises and that they have no plans to invade, but U.S. and European officials say the numbers and locations of the troops suggest something more than exercises.

The Kremlin, on the other hand, said Putin had drawn Obama's attention to a "rampage of extremists" in Ukraine and suggested "possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation" in Ukraine.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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