PARIS: Facing off in Europe’s capitals, Russia and the West Wednesday began trying to build the elements of a diplomatic solution to one of Europe’s gravest crises since the Cold War – even as the West appeared increasingly resigned to an entrenched Russian presence in Crimea.
NATO hit back by putting Russia on suspension and the European Union extended $15 billion in aid to Ukraine, matching the amount the country’s fugitive president accepted from Moscow to turn his back on an EU trade accord.
As peace efforts progressed in Paris and Brussels, volatility reigned on the ground: A special U.N. envoy visiting Crimea was forced by armed men to leave the region. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators, many chanting “Russia! Russia!” stormed a government building in eastern Ukraine, renewing fears that turmoil could spill out of Crimea and engulf other Russian-dominated parts of the country.
Ukraine’s prime minister said he still feared Russian President Vladimir Putin might attempt more land grabs: “Mr. President,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, “stop this mess.”
Yatsenyuk vowed to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but expressed openness to granting it more autonomy. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said pro-Russian citizens in Crimea must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if they want a vote on more self-rule.
But most of the bargaining chips belonged to Russia, whose troops are fanned out across Crimea and control most of its strategic facilities.
“I’m not optimistic they’re going to leave,” said Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia until last week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several European counterparts conducted an intense round of diplomacy in Paris to try to find an exit strategy. The talks were inconclusive but officials expressed optimism that they were talking.
“For the first time, starting with this meeting in Paris, something moved in the right direction,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
Lavrov, speaking in Spain before meeting with Kerry, warned against Western support of what Moscow considers a coup, saying that could encourage government takeovers elsewhere. “If we indulge those who are trying to rule our great, kind historic neighbor we must understand that a bad example is infectious.”
A major sticking point has been Moscow’s refusal to recognize Ukraine’s new government.
NATO tried to apply pressure on Moscow in its own talks with Russia in Brussels.
Its Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance suspended plans for a joint mission as well as all civilian and military meetings.
Rasmussen said “the entire range of NATO-Russia cooperation [is] under review.” While talks at the political level would continue, halting all other cooperation “sends a very clear message to Russia.”
The Pentagon will more than double the number of U.S. fighter jets on a NATO air patrol mission in the Baltics and do more training with Poland’s air force, officials said.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing that he had directed the U.S. military’s European Command to “consult and plan within the construct of the North Atlantic Council” while stressing the intent was to help stabilize the situation.
One key piece of leverage that the West has over nearly bankrupt Ukraine: hard cash. The three months of protests that triggered Ukraine’s crisis erupted when Yanukovych accepted $15 billion in aid from Putin in exchange for dropping an economic partnership deal with the EU. The EU Wednesday matched the aid – which the Russians withdrew after Yanukovych’s downfall – and the U.S. topped that up with an additional $1 billion.
In Crimea, U.N. special envoy Robert Serry was threatened by 10 to 15 armed men as he was leaving naval headquarters in Crimea, said U.N. deputy chief Jan Eliasson. When the men ordered Serry to go to the airport, Serry refused – but then found himself trapped because his car was blocked, Eliasson said.
The Dutch envoy was later spotted in a coffee shop before being taken to Simferopol airport.