Russian and U.S. diplomats struggle to reach agreement

Rebellious Crimea said it wants to secede from Ukraine and join Russia even as Russian and the U.S. top diplomats struggled to reach an agreement on the crisis.

The Parliament in Crimea, in a surprise move, decided on Thursday to ask Moscow to allow the region to accede to Russia and move forward the date of a referendum on the region’s status from March 30 to March 16.

Voters in Crimea will be asked to choose between two options: stay in Ukraine or join Russia. Previously, the Parliament planned to seek greater autonomy for Crimea within Ukraine.

It is not clear whether the Crimean authorities had coordinated their change of plans with Moscow. Two days ago, Mr Putin said Russia had no plans to annex Crimea.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed some ideas on how to resolve the crisis in Ukraine during their first direct contact after the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych.

“We have agreed that we will study some ideas John Kerry conveyed to me today regarding concrete steps that might be taken,” Mr Lavrov said after two meetings with Mr Kerry on Wednesday and Thursday on the sidelines of international conferences in Paris and Rome.

The Russian Minister told reporters in Rome that he was seeking clarifications from the U.S. on its proposal “to set up some international mechanism [for Ukraine] and its composition.”

“We can’t report to the world yet that we’ve reached an agreement. I will report to the Russian President on what we’ve discussed, after which he will take a decision.”

Mr Kerry also said there were “a number of ideas” up for discussion. France’s Foreign Minister, who took part in some discussions, confirmed that progress had been made. However, Mr Lavrov said Moscow continued to insist on implementing the February 21 agreement between Mr Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, which called for a constitutional reform, a coalition government and new elections by December. The opposition refused to honour any of the provisions after Mr Yanukovych fled Kiev.

Russia said the new government in Kiev is illegitimate and Mr Lavrov refused to meet Ukraine’s Acting Foreign Minister in Paris.

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