MOSCOW: Russia said on Saturday it had “no intention” of invading eastern Ukraine, responding to Western warnings over a military buildup on the border following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking on Russian television, reinforced a message from President Vladimir Putin that Russia would settle — at least for now — for control over Crimea despite massing thousands of troops near Ukraine’s eastern border. “We have absolutely no intention of — or interest in — crossing Ukraine’s borders,” Lavrov said.
But he added that Russia was ready to protect the rights of Russian speakers, referring to what Moscow sees as threats to the lives of compatriots in eastern Ukraine since Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich was deposed as president in February.
The West imposed sanctions on Russia, including visa bans for some of Putin’s inner circle, after Moscow annexed Crimea this month following a referendum on union of the Russian-majority region with the Russian Federation which the West said was illegal.
The West has threatened tougher sanctions targeting Russia’s stuttering economy if Moscow sends more troops to Ukraine. US officials said as many as 40,000 may be massed near the border.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an interview with Germany’s Focus magazine, said the alliance was “extremely worried.” “We view it as a concrete threat to Ukraine and see the potential for further interventions,” said Rasmussen, who is due to leave the post in October.
“I fear that it is not yet enough for him (Putin). I am worried that we are not dealing with rational thinking as much as with emotions, the yearning to rebuild Russia’s old sphere of influence in its immediate neighborhood.” In a sign, however, that Putin may be ready to reduce tension in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War, the Russian leader called US President Barack Obama on Friday to discuss a US diplomatic proposal for Ukraine.
The White House said Obama told Putin that Russia must pull back its troops and not move deeper into the ex-Soviet republic.
The Kremlin said Putin had suggested “examining possible steps the global community can take to help stabilize the situation.” That was followed by a phone call on Saturday between Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. It said they discussed Ukraine and the timing of further contacts on a call initiated by Washington.
Kerry has abruptly changed course and will stay in Europe for talks on the Ukraine crisis. Flying from Riyadh to Shannon, Ireland, for a refueling stop on Saturday, Kerry decided to turn his plane around and was traveling to Paris for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as early as Sunday or Monday.
Ukraine remains deeply divided over protests that led to Yanukovich’s ousting and many eastern Russian-speaking regions are skeptical about the policies of the new pro-Western government in Kiev.
Yanukovich called on Friday for each of the country’s regions to hold a referendum on their status within Ukraine, instead of the presidential election planned for May 25.
Ukraine’s presidential election effectively became a two-horse race on Saturday after boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko pulled out and threw his weight behind confectionary oligarch Petro Poroshenko.