World Bulletin / News Desk
Ukraine has hit back strongly at Russian calls for it to federalise its state structure and make Russian an official state language, saying its proposals were aimed at the break-up of Ukraine.
In an unusually harsh statement issued late on Sunday in reaction to comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it said he was making demands on Ukraine which Russia would never allow itself at home.
"Why does Russia not introduce federalism ... Why does it not give more powers to national regions of the (Russian) Federation .. Why does it not introduce state languages, other than Russian, including Ukrainian, which is spoken by millions of Russians?", it asked.
"There's no need to preach to others. It's better to put things in order in your own house," it said.
The statement, reacting to comments by Lavrov in a Russian television interview at the weekend, objected to what it described as a "didactic tone of ultimatum" taken by the Russian foreign minister.
This showed, it said, that Russia as "a real aggressor" was not seeking any settlement of the crisis following its takeover of Crimea, which voted in a referendum on March 16 to become part of the Russian Federation.
"Under the barrels of their machine-guns, this aggressor seeks only one thing - the total capitulation of Ukraine, its break-up and the destruction of the Ukrainian state," it said.
KERRY MEETS LAVROV ON UKRAINE
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks on Sunday about ways to defuse the crisis over Ukraine, with Kerry telling Moscow that progress depended on a Russian troop pullback from Ukraine's borders.
"Both sides made suggestions of ways to de-escalate the security and political situation in and around Ukraine," Kerry told a news conference late on Sunday after meeting with Lavrov for four hours in Paris.
"Any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine's borders," Kerry said. "We believe these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine. It certainly does not create the climate that we need."
The two were seeking to hammer out the framework of a deal to reduce tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. The Russian move into Crimea, following the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president in February, has sparked the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War ended two decades ago.
While there were no outlines of an agreement, the two sides agreed to keep talking and both said the Ukrainian government had to be part of the solution.
Washington is adamant that there could be "no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine," Kerry told reporters, adding the United States saw its role as creating conditions for negotiations between Moscow and Kiev.
Kerry made clear that Washington still considered Russian actions in Crimea to be "illegal and illegitimate."
The United States and European Union have issued two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including visa bans and asset freezes on some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, to punish Moscow over its seizure of Crimea, a Russian-majority Black Sea peninsula.
Crimeans voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a March 16 referendum dismissed as a sham by Western governments that say it violated Ukraine's constitution and was held only after Russian forces seized control of the region.
"The U.S. and Russia have differences of opinion about events that led to this crisis, but both of us recognize the importance of finding a diplomatic solution and simultaneously meeting the needs of the Ukrainian people," Kerry said.
The West has refused to recognise Crimea's absorption into Russia, although U.S. officials acknowledge that the takeover of is not likely to be resolved soon. Instead, talks have focused on warning Moscow not to go farther into Ukraine.
U.S. officials are deeply worried about the massing of what they estimate are up to 40,000 Russian troops on Ukraine's border, which is stoking concerns in Washington and elsewhere that Russia is preparing a wider incursion into Ukraine.
America's top general in Europe was sent back early from a trip to Washington in what the Pentagon on Sunday called a prudent step given Russia's "lack of transparency" about troop movements across the border with Ukraine.
General Philip Breedlove, who is NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of the U.S. military's European Command, arrived in Europe on Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before the U.S. Congress this week.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel considered Breedlove's early return "the prudent thing to do, given the lack of transparency and intent from Russian leadership about their military movements across the border," a Pentagon spokesman said.
Lavrov, speaking on Russian television on Saturday, said Moscow had "no intention" of invading eastern Ukraine and reinforced a message from Putin that Moscow would settle, at least for now, for control over Crimea.
Kerry said on Sunday the U.S. side felt increased acknowledgement on Russia's part that Ukraine's transitional government was taking steps to address Moscow's concerns, including rights of minorities, constitutional reform and free and fair elections.
Lavrov told reporters: "We have agreed to work with the Ukrainian government and people to achieve progress in rights of minorities and linguistic rights," Interfax reported.
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting followed a phone call between Obama and Putin last week and came days before NATO foreign ministers hold meetings in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday that are likely to focus on Ukraine.