Russian PM Medvedev visits Crimea in wake of annexation

US and Russia agree diplomatic solution needed but four hours of talks fail to break deadlock


Russia’s prime minister has arrived in Crimea to consider priorities for its economic development following the Russian takeover.

Dmitry Medvedev is leading a delegation of cabinet ministers and is chairing a meeting to discuss priorities for federal assistance to the region, which Russia annexed from Ukraine earlier this month.

The annexation followed a hastily called referendum held just two weeks after Russian forces had overtaken the Black Sea region, in which an overwhelming majority of voters backed joining Russia.

Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote.

Deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, part of Mr Medvedev’s retinue, tweeted a photo of himself upon arrival in Crimea, with the words “Crimea is ours, and that’s that.”

Ukraine this afternoon denounced the Medvedev visit to Crimea, describing it as a “crude violation” of the rules of international behaviour.

“The Ukrainian foreign ministry, in its note to the Russian Federation, expressed a categorical protest and stated that the visit of an official person to the territory of another state without preliminary agreement is a crude violation of the rules of the international community,” ministry spokesman Evhen Perebiynis told journalists.

Earlier, the US and Russia agreed that a diplomatic solution for Ukraine is needed, but four hours of talks still failed to break the tense East-West deadlock on how to proceed.

US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met in Paris over Moscow’s response to a US plan to de-escalate the crisis.

Mr Kerry stressed that Ukraine would have to be at the table for negotiations and said the Russian troop build-up along the border was creating a climate of fear and intimidation. Even though the troops were still on Russian soil, they created a negative atmosphere, he noted.

“The question is not one of right or legality,” he said. “The question is one of strategic appropriateness and whether it’s smart at this moment of time to have troops massed on the border.”

‘Loose federation’

As he called for Moscow to begin an immediate pullback of the troops, Mr Kerry also ruled out discussion of Russia’s demand for Ukraine to become a loose federation - until and unless Ukrainians were at the table.

“It is not up to us to make any decision or agreement regarding federalisation. It is up to Ukrainians,” he said.

At a separate briefing, Mr Lavrov said Ukraine could not function as a “unified state” and should be a loose federation of regions that choose their own economic model, language and religion.

He said he and Mr Kerry discussed the possibility of a federated Ukrainian state at “very, very constructive” talks.

Mr Lavrov said they agreed to work with the Ukrainian government to improve rights for Russian-speaking Ukrainians and disarming “irregular forces and provocateurs”.

The talks are part of broader diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis in Ukraine after protests drove out a pro-Russian president and Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in response.

Sitting face-to-face, but not seeing eye-to-eye on any of the most critical issues, Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov advanced far different proposals on how to calm tensions and defuse the situation, particularly as Russia continues to mass troops along its border with the former Soviet republic.

“The Russian troop build-up is creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine,” Mr Kerry told reporters after the meeting, which was held at the Russian ambassador’s residence and included a working dinner. “It certainly does not create the climate that we need for dialogue.”

US officials said Mr Kerry proposed a number of ideas on troop withdrawals from the border and that Mr Lavrov, while making no promises, told him he would present the proposals to the Kremlin.

Mr Lavrov did not address the troops issue in his briefing, but instead made the case for Moscow’s idea of Ukraine as a federalised nation with its various regions enjoying major autonomy from the government in Kiev.

Russia says it is particularly concerned about the treatment of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who live in southern and eastern Ukraine.

He said every time Ukraine elected a new president, the country adopted a new constitution, proving that “the model of a unified state doesn’t work”.

He denied that Moscow wanted to fracture Ukraine, saying: “Federation does not mean, as some in Kiev fear, an attempt to split Ukraine. To the contrary, federation ... answers the interests of all regions of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralising power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. They are, however, exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.

The meeting was hastily arranged 48 hours after US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone in a conversation in which Mr Obama urged Mr Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine.

Mr Putin, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government was allowing extremists to intimidate ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking civilians with impunity - something Ukraine insists is not happening.

Mr Kerry and Mr Lavrov have met several times and have spoken by phone almost daily since the crisis began, but have not yet been able to agree on a way forward. The pair met last week in The Hague, where Mr Kerry presented Mr Lavrov with the proposal, which was a response to ideas Mr Lavrov gave him at a March 14th meeting in London.

The two will continue their consultation at a distance and Mr Kerry is expected to travel to Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday for a meeting of Nato foreign ministers.