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Sunday, July 15, 2018

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

LONDON — Eleventh-hour talks between the United States and Russia failed to break the deadlock Friday over how to resolve the crisis in southern Ukraine, where pro-Moscow forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula and are set to hold a referendum on secession this weekend.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the United States and other Western nations would not recognize the vote and that they would swiftly impose limited sanctions on Moscow. He also warned that a move by Russia to ratify the outcome of the referendum, almost certain to be in favor of secession, would amount to an illegal “backdoor annexation” of Crimea.

“There will be consequences if Russia does not find a way to change course,” Kerry told reporters after six hours of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London. “We don’t say that as a threat. We say that as a direct consequence of the choices that Russia may or may not choose to make here.”

Kerry said Lavrov had made clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not make any decisions before Sunday’s plebiscite, which would offer Crimea the choice of withdrawing from Ukraine and joining Russia.

With hopes that diplomacy might stave off the disputed vote apparently dashed, hostility between the West and Russia looked likely to increase. The United States and the European Union are poised to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials deemed responsible for the military incursion into Crimea; Moscow has vowed to respond in kind.

Kerry expressed concern over Russia’s troop movements close to the Ukrainian border, which have sparked fears that Moscow is preparing to mount an armed intervention there in the name of protecting eastern Ukraine’s large Russian-speaking population. Putin has cited a similar rationale for the incursion into Crimea, where pro-Russian forces have seized control of nearly all the levers of power, including Ukrainian military and government installations and parts of the media.

“If Russia does establish facts on the ground that increase tensions or that threaten the Ukrainian people, then obviously that will beg an even greater response,” Kerry said.

For his part, Lavrov declared that his country had “no plans of military intrusion into eastern Ukraine,” despite what he described as an increasingly lawless atmosphere there.