Russia has ruled out intervening militarily in mainland Ukraine even as it sought to shift into higher gear diplomatic efforts to resolve the worst post-Cold War crisis.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said Moscow has “absolutely no intention” of moving its forces into Ukraine, in what is the most categorical refutation to date of alarmist Western reports of imminent Russian “invasion.”
“We have absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border,” Mr. Lavrov told Russian state television on Saturday.
Mr. Lavrov’s statement came after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called U.S. President Barack Obama late on Friday to suggest “examining possible steps by the international community to help stabilise the situation.”
The two leaders “agreed that the foreign policy chiefs of Russia and the U.S. would shortly discuss concrete parameters of such joint work,” the Kremlin said. Hours later U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a call to Mr. Lavrov. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the two officials discussed the Ukraine crisis “in the light of the telephone conversation between the Russian and U.S. Presidents” and planned their further contacts.
The White House said Mr. Obama asked Mr. Putin to put “in writing” Russia’s response to U.S. proposals that Mr. Kerry had passed to Mr. Lavrov at The Hague earlier this week. Details of the U.S. proposals were not disclosed, but the White House said Mr. Obama told his Russian counterpart that a diplomatic solution was possible “only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
Russia, for its part, has set forth its vision for resolving the Ukraine crisis. Mr. Lavrov said in the Saturday interview that Russia’s main demands were that Ukraine be made into a federation and commit to not joining NATO. According to Mr. Lavrov, the first step should be disarming of militants who continue to stalk the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. This should be followed by a constitutional reform that would grant “broad powers” to Ukraine’s regions in economy and culture and “secure the rights of all minorities.”
“We are convinced that the new Constitution must clearly affirm Ukraine’s non-bloc status,” Mr. Lavrov said.
In Moscow’s view, presidential elections in Ukraine, now scheduled for May 25, should be postponed and held only after the new Constitution has been approved in a national referendum.
Mr. Lavrov said that the Americans are beginning to heed the Russian proposals. “They are listening. I can say that ‘federation’ is no longer a taboo word in our discussions,” he said.
Meanwhile, the presidential campaign in Ukraine is heating up, with the main parties announcing their candidates on Saturday.
The only surprise came from Vitali Klitschko, leader of the UDAR (Punch) party and former boxing champion. Mr. Klitschko, one of the main opposition leaders in the protests that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych last month, unexpectedly bowed out of the race in favour of pro-West chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who helped finance the protest movement.
Analysts said the main race will be between Mr. Poroshenko, favoured by about a quarter of voters, and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, who has the support of over eight per cent of Ukrainians.
The former ruling Party of the Regions, which on Saturday excluded Mr. Yanukovych from its ranks, approved the candidacy of Mikhail Dobkin, former Governor of Kharkiv region.