Diplomats meet over Ukraine as EU offers $15bn in aid package

Paris gathering comes day after Putin tells Western powers to stop intervening; US says sanctions could come soon

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a press conference at his residence outside Moscow on Tuesday.
Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Diplomats gathered in Paris on Wednesday in an effort to end tensions in Ukraine as the West pushed for a de-escalation of Russian military build-up in the Crimea

Talks in the French capital involving envoys from Ukraine, Russia and Western powers are expected to be followed by a face-to-face meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterpart in Moscow, Sergei Lavrov.

As high-level diplomats attempted to find a solution to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, the E.U. sought to provide economic support for the cash-strapped country.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the E.U. was prepared to provide $15 billion of financial support to Ukraine over the next couple of years through loans and grants to help the country pull back from the brink of economic collapse. 

The day before Russian President Vladimir Putin had said that his country reserved the right to use military force to protect Russians living in Ukraine but would do so only as a last resort.

Breaking his silence on events in Ukraine since massive pro-Europe protests forced out Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovich last month, Putin skirted questions about Russian troops' taking control of Ukraine's Crimea, saying the armed men who seized buildings there over the past few days were local forces.

Putin's remarks drew strong reactions from world leaders, who threatened sanctions if Russia maintained its foothold in Ukraine. The envoys from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S., Britain and France are not necessarily all at the same table, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said everyone has been working non-stop for a diplomatic solution over tensions in Ukraine.

 "We have a principle of firmness but at the same time of searching for dialogue," Fabius said as he stood alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, making his first trip abroad in the new post.

Russia took over Crimea on Saturday, placing troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts.

"Today the Ukrainian future will be decided," Andriy Deshchytsia, Ukraine's foreign minister, said of the meetings in Paris. "We want to keep neighborly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully."

Wednesday's gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, but the crisis is far from resolved.

Amid the tension, Russia announced Tuesday that it had successfully test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile was fired from the southern Astrakhan region, and the dummy warhead hit its target at a proving ground in Kazakhstan, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Yegorov told state-run news agency RIA.

U.S. officials said the missile launch was planned before Ukraine and Russia became embroiled in the crisis in Crimea.

In his press conference Tuesday, Putin distanced himself from Yanukovich and warned that any countries considering sanctions should think of the damage they would incur.

"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power. No one argues with this. Who can argue with it?" Putin said, looking relaxed as he sat before a small group of reporters at his residence near Moscow.

"As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need, but such a possibility exists," he said. "What could serve as a reason to use military force? It would naturally be the last resort, absolutely the last."

Putin said Russia would not encourage separatist moves in Ukraine, where many people in the east and south have closer ties to Russia than to the new leaders in Kiev, who are seeking stronger relations with the European Union.

Putin insisted that the Russian military deployment in Ukraine's strategic Crimean Peninsula has remained within the limits of a bilateral agreement on a Russian military base there. He said Russia has no intentions of annexing Crimea, but he insisted that its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum set for this month.

"We are not going to meddle. But we think all Ukraine's citizens, no matter where they live, should have the same rights to ... determine the future of their country," he said.

Putin seemed to place blame for the events in Ukraine on the United States, since Washington backed the protesters. He also implied that Washington was hypocritical in its criticism of Russia.

"Let's remember what the U.S. did in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya," he said. "We believe we are completely legitimate in what we are doing."

Click here for more on the crisis in Ukraine.

As international efforts to calm the crisis continued, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kiev, where he said he spoke with Putin by phone and urged him to use diplomatic means to pursue Russia's interests.

"It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," Kerry said at a press conference. "It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve. That is not 21st century, G-8, major nation behavior."

President Barack Obama, speaking after announcing his 2015 budget in Washington, said the U.S. was in "full support of the Ukrainian people." He said: "We may be able to de-escalate over the next several days and weeks. ... It's a serious situation and we are spending a lot of time on it."

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron did not specifically mention sanctions Tuesday but said, "We need to send an even more clear message that if there are further incursions into the Ukraine territorial integrity and sovereignty, then further steps would have to be taken."

In Brussels, NATO ambassadors held a second emergency meeting on Ukraine on Tuesday after Poland — which borders Russia and Ukraine — invoked an article calling for consultations when a nation sees its "territorial integrity, political independence or security threatened."

The European Union will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to decide whether to impose sanctions against Russia if there is no de-escalation on the ground.  

A U.S. official told Reuters that Washington was ready to impose sanctions on Russia within days if the situation does not change.

EU foreign ministers on Monday threatened Moscow with halting talks on visa liberalization and negotiations on further economic cooperation unless Russian troops pull back over the next three days.

Putin's economic adviser, Sergei Glazyev, said Russia can develop financial ties with other nations to offset any potential sanctions, and Russian officials said their country would retaliate if the U.S. imposed any.

"We will have to respond," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a news release. "As always in such situations, provoked by rash and irresponsible actions by Washington, we stress: This is not our choice."

"We have frequently explained to the Americans ... why unilateral sanctions do not fit the standards of civilized relations between states," he said.

Amid the tension, there were limited signs of how a diplomatic way out of the crisis could proceed.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced Ukrainian and Russian officials had begun holding talks.

The White House announced a $1 billion aid package for Ukraine and said the administration would work with international partners to provide more aid.

But tensions in Crimea continued.

On Tuesday pro-Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in Crimea fired warning shots into the air as about 300 Ukrainian soldiers who previously manned the airfield demanded their jobs back.

Russian navy ships blocked the Kerch Strait separating Crimea and Russia, the Ukrainian border guard service said.

There were signs that the situation could draw in another NATO member, with Turkey saying it scrambled planes to sections of the Black Sea under its control after the military spotted Russian planes over the Turkish coast.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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