Russia yesterday pledged it would not invade mainland Ukraine following its seizure of Crimea and said it favored the ex-Soviet state becoming a federation as a way of defusing the crisis.
Tensions have run high after Russian President Vladimir Putin ripped up the post-Soviet order with Moscow’s lightning takeover of Crimea from Ukraine, with the US accusing Russia of massing tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
However, telephone talks between Putin and US President Barack Obama late on Friday were the latest sign of a slight lessening in tensions between Moscow and the West, and a search for a mutual solution in what remains the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov hinted at what were Moscow’s main demands in the negotiations — that Ukraine should be made into a federation and commit to not joining NATO, while order should be restored to the Ukrainian capital Kiev, where protesters have thronged the city center for six months.
Ukraine is now entering a crucial phase in its development after the fall of pro-Kremlin former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych last month, as the clock ticks down to May 25 presidential elections which are expected to cement Kiev’s pro-West course.
With boxing champion turned politician Vitali Klitschko bowing out of the race, the overwhelming favorite to win those elections is pro-West confectionary tycoon Petro Poroshenko, a former Ukrainian economy and foreign minister.
Lavrov said in a major Russian television interview broadcast yesterday that Moscow has absolutely no intention of ordering its armed forces to cross over the Ukrainian border and acknowledged that the divisions between Moscow and the West on the crisis are narrowing.
“We have absolutely no intention and no interests in crossing the Ukrainian border,” he said.
“We [Russia and the West] are getting closer in our positions,” he added, saying that recent contacts had shown the outlines of a “possible joint initiative which could be presented to our Ukrainian colleagues.”
Lavrov made clear Russia’s priorities for Ukraine were a federalization which would allow the interests of everyone in the country — including Russian speakers in the east and south — to be fully represented.
Ukraine should also commit to never joining NATO — clearly a red line for Moscow — and protesters should leave Ukrainian squares and buildings, Lavrov said.
“There should be no ambiguity here. There is too much ‘not for the time being’ and ‘we don’t intend’ [to join NATO]. Intentions change, but facts on the ground remain,” he said.
He said that the West was showing openness to Russia’s idea of a federalized Ukraine.
“They are listening. I can say that a federation [for Ukraine] is far from being a forbidden word in our talks,” Lavrov said.
“To be honest, we do not see any other path forwards for the Ukrainian state other than federalization,” he added.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters that Putin told him in Moscow earlier this month “he had no intention to make any military move” following the seizure of Crimea.