Russia said Monday it is drafting counterproposals to a US plan for a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis, denouncing the new Western-backed government as an unacceptable "fait accompli" and claiming that Russian-leaning parts of the country have been plunged into lawlessness.
The Kremlin moves came as Russian forces strengthened their control over Crimea, less than a week before the strategic region is to hold a contentious referendum on whether to split off and become part of Russia.
In a televised briefing with President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said proposals made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are "not suitable" because they take "the situation created by the coup as a starting point," referring to the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Referring to a document he received from Kerry explaining the US view of the situation in Ukraine, Lavrov said: "To be frank, it raises many questions on our side."
"Everything was stated in terms of allegedly having a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and in terms of accepting the fait accompli," he said.
Lavrov said Kerry delayed a visit to Moscow to discuss the situation, and Russia had decided to prepare new proposals of its own, though he did not say what they were.
"We suggested that he come today ... and we were prepared to receive him. He gave his preliminary consent. He then called me on Saturday and said he would like to postpone it for a while," the minister said.
But in Washington, State Department officials said that it was Russia's refusal to discuss the American proposals that was hurting prospects for a negotiated solution — in particular, the idea of direct talks between Russian officials and those of the new Ukrainian government.
"We are still awaiting a Russian response to the concrete questions that Secretary Kerry sent Foreign Minister Lavrov on Saturday in this regard," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
"Secretary Kerry made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov that he would welcome further discussions focused on how to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage on these proposals," she said.
The statement said Kerry, in weekend discussions with Lavrov, reiterated Washington's demand that Moscow pull back its troops from Ukraine and end attempts to annex the Crimean peninsula. Kerry also called on Russia to cease what the statement described as "provocative steps" to allow diplomatic talks to continue.
U.S. officials described a series of diplomatic maneuvers between Washington and Moscow over the weekend that initially led to an invitation for Kerry meet with Putin on Monday. The offer expired, however, after the two sides could not quickly agree to a page-and-a-half outline for potential negotiations that, above all, demanded Ukraine's borders remain intact, according to the officials who were not authorized to be quoted by name.
The U.S. outline did call for ways to address any Russian concerns about the government turnover in Kiev that Moscow is calling a coup, and it introduced the potential for investigations into acts of violence by any party to the conflict, the officials said. Left unsaid, however, was precisely how those concerns might be assuaged, or what government would be tasked with leading such an investigation.
The U.S. outline also called on Russia to pull back from Crimea, both in military force and in influence, to halt the local government there from holding a March 16 vote on whether it should separate from Ukraine, the officials said. It further sought to gain Russian support for placing international monitors in Crimea, allowing the International Monetary Fund to work with Ukraine and backing a May 25 national election set by Kiev.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's foreign minister said Monday that his country was practically in a state of war with Russia, whose forces have effectively taken control over the Crimean Peninsula in what has become Europe's greatest geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War.
"We have to admit that our life now is almost like ... a war," Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsya said before meeting his counterparts from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. "We have to cope with an aggression that we do not understand."
Deshchytsya said Ukraine is counting on help from the West. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday.
On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the lawlessness it said "now rules in eastern regions of Ukraine as a result of the actions of fighters of the so-called 'Right Sector,' with the full connivance" of Ukraine's new authorities.
Right Sector is a grouping of far-right and nationalist factions whose activists were among the most radical and confrontational of the three-monthlong demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, which eventually ousted Yanukovych.
The Kremlin statement also claimed Russian citizens trying to enter Ukraine have been turned back at the border by Ukrainian officials.
Pro-Russia sentiment is high in Ukraine's east and there are fears Russia could seek to incorporate that area as well.
Obama has warned that the March 16 referendum in Crimea would violate international law, and Putin countered that in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Minister David Cameron.
"The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula," Putin said, according to the Kremlin.
Meanwhile, Obama spoke by telephone with Chinese President Xi Jinping late Sunday, trying to court China's support for efforts to isolate Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine.
Obama appealed to Beijing's vehement opposition to outside intervention in other nations' domestic affairs, according to a White House statement.
Obama "noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference," the statement said, adding that the two leaders "agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity."
China has been studiously neutral since the Ukraine crisis began and it remained unclear whether China would side with the U.S. and Europe or with Moscow.
The UN Security Council, meanwhile, met on Ukraine for the fifth time in 10 days to hear a closed-door briefing from Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev. The council has been unable to take any action because Russia has veto power.
In Kiev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the businessman and Putin critic who was once Russia's most famous prisoner, said Monday his country is ruining its longstanding friendship with Ukraine.
"The question of Crimea's fate is very painful both for Ukrainians and for Russians. It's not just a simple territorial dispute for some extra square kilometers," Khodorkovsky told a packed hall at Kiev Polytechnic University.
"For Russians, it's a sacred place, an important element in our historical memory and the most painful wound since the Soviet collapse," Khodorkovsky said. Nevertheless, he said, the symbolism of Crimea for Russians cannot justify "such a blatant incursion into the affairs of a historically friendly state."
He called for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine, but with broader regional powers and the protection of the rights of Russian speakers there.
Khodorkovsky, once Russia's wealthiest man, was pardoned last December by Putin. Many believe he was convicted of tax violations and other crimes and sent to prison on trumped-up charges.
On Sunday, Khodorkovsky almost wept as he urged a large crowd in Kiev's center not to believe that all Russians support their government's actions in Crimea.
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