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Kerry, Lavrov Discuss Ukraine And Middle East Crises

Washington (AFP) – Top U.S. diplomat John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov spoke Thursday to discuss the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, officials said.

“Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov spoke by phone today. They discussed the situation in the Middle East and Ukraine,” according to a senior State Department official.

The two diplomats have a good relationship, despite sometimes frosty relations between their governments on several issues, including Ukraine.

Earlier this month, Lavrov said a new U.S. sanctions law against Russia could undermine relations between Moscow and Washington for a long time.

The United States voted this week against a bid by Palestinians to win backing for a UN resolution on a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, a move Russia supported.

Kerry and Lavrov last met face-to-face on December 14 on in Italy, where they spoke for more than three hours on a number of issues, discussing the situation in Ukraine and Syria.

AFP Photo/Alexander Nemenov

After Ukraine Election, Turmoil Continues In East

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — Petro Poroshenko has yet to be declared winner of Ukraine’s presidential election, but the challenges facing the presumed new leader were on dauntingly full display Monday.

Pro-Russia gunmen who claim control of nearly 15 percent of the country invaded the international airport in Donetsk after thwarting voter participation in the election Sunday to choose a head of state to succeed ousted Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovich.

Masked militants toting heavy weapons set up positions at the modern glass-and-steel terminal at Donetsk Sergei Prokofiev International Airport, built as the city of a million’s stylish welcome mat for the 2012 European soccer championships.

Ukraine’s interim leaders deployed helicopter gunships and ground reinforcements to regain control of the airport in midafternoon, and a spokesman for the Defense Ministry’s beleaguered “anti-terrorist operation” said government forces had wiped out a gun emplacement of the rebels and secured the runway, control tower and access to the facility.

Still, the airport remained closed to commercial flights for safety reasons and was apparently destined for the kind of armed standoff that persists in a dozen towns and cities of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Poroshenko, the 48-year-old billionaire who has been a player in two previous Ukrainian governments, compared the pro-Russia militants to Somali pirates — elected by no one and pursuing their own selfish interests. He said the government in Kiev would never negotiate with terrorists, but he acknowledged that the tense and deadly standoff was unlikely to ease without the involvement of Russian leaders.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued an early assurance that the Kremlin was “ready for dialogue” with the presumed winner of the election. Poroshenko has production and marketing interests in Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has intimated that he could do business with him.

But Lavrov’s tentative olive branch was offered with the warning that Kiev must cease its military campaign to retake control of the militant-occupied areas in Ukraine’s east.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that the so-called anti-terrorist operation did not end,” Lavrov said of the Kremlin’s insistence that Sunday’s election couldn’t be considered valid if violence was being waged against the Russian-speaking eastern regions. Failure to halt the operation now that Kiev has new leadership in sight “will be a huge mistake,” he warned.

The attack by Ukrainian air force troops later Monday was likely to anger the Kremlin, which has sought to cast Kiev’s efforts to recover authority in the east as evidence that it is bent on repressing the Russian-speaking minority in the Donbass region, where Soviet-era industrial integration remains.

International affairs experts who were in Ukraine to observe the election portrayed the vote as an inspiring triumph of civic spirit and commitment to democracy over the nationalist aggression driving the separatists in the east.

“The majority of the country was able to vote in a most orderly and disciplined way and made their voice absolutely clear,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, head of the National Democratic Institute, which sent dozens of observers to oversee the voting.

Sidestepping a question about whether stricter sanctions against Moscow were in order for its alleged backing of the militants who prevented Donetsk and Luhansk voters from casting ballots, Albright said it was “important to focus on the main story here, that the way people voted made clear they want a moral country.”

Jane Harman, the longtime California congresswoman who now heads the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said it was time for some “tough love” for Ukraine, which has squandered previous opportunities to build a country committed to democracy and the rule of law.

Noting that the public fervor for change was betrayed after the country proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and again when the 2004 Orange Revolution deteriorated into strangling corruption, Harman said Poroshenko’s mandate to create a new Ukraine might be the last chance for the country to seize the opportunity for reform with Western assistance.

“It’s either third time’s the charm or three strikes and you’re out,” said Harman, a Los Angeles Democrat.

Asked how the outbreak of Russian nationalist aggression in eastern Ukraine could be reversed, she said Poroshenko and his incoming team of leaders were obliged to set the country on a clear course for economic recovery, which would be the envy of those now aligned with Russia, which has been hit by Western sanctions for its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its attempts to wrest Luhansk and Donetsk from Ukraine.

Whether Putin’s recent conciliatory statements about working with Ukraine’s newly elected leader are to be trusted, Harman balked at the idea that the Kremlin is controlling Ukraine’s future.

“The conversation should be about Ukraine, not about Putin,” she said, expressing the hope that Poroshenko can build an inclusive government to address the Russian-speaking minority’s concerns while honoring the mandate given him by Ukrainian voters fed up with life in a dysfunctional state nearly a quarter of a century after independence.

©afp.com / Genya Savilov

Kremlin Backing Rebels In Push For Power-Sharing Reforms

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

The Kremlin’s top diplomat signaled Tuesday that Russia won’t recognize the results of Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election unless it is preceded by a “national dialogue” on redistributing power to the regions and an end to Ukrainian troops’ efforts to retake eastern territory seized by pro-Russia rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also accused Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev of “fascism” and pointed to Friday’s deadly confrontation in the Black Sea port of Odessa as evidence of the Western-allied leadership’s brutal intentions toward Russians and other minorities.

Lavrov spoke in Vienna during a gathering of the Council of Europe as fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-allied separatists in eastern Ukraine ground to a tense standoff.

An “anti-terrorist operation” launched weeks ago has made only limited progress in containing the pro-Russian gunmen, said to number about 800 in Slovyansk, the main battleground in an arc of towns and cities along Ukraine’s Russian border where militants man roadblocks to repel the Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian officials blamed the slow progress in quelling the Slovyansk insurgency on the separatist gunmen’s use of women and other civilians as human shields to deter forceful moves by the Ukrainian troops to retake the town of 125,000 in the Donetsk region.

Ukrainian acting defense minister Mykhailo Koval told a Reuters news agency reporter in Slovyansk that the presence of civilians compelled the government to erect “a gradual blockade, destroying provocateurs and sabotage to prevent injuries among the population.”

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Tuesday gave updated casualty figures to journalists covering the escalating conflict in the eastern regions. He said 30 pro-Russia militants had been killed in two days of fighting and that four Ukrainian soldiers died in the sporadic battles.

The Ukrainian troops managed to overrun one checkpoint near Slovyansk, breaking the rebels’ lines of communication, The Associated Press reported.

But other reports from the roiling region said the separatists had surrounded an Interior Ministry base in Donetsk and were preventing security forces from reinforcing the government mission to recover control of the militant-occupied towns and cities.

Lavrov’s speech in Vienna suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin will persist with what Kiev’s interim authorities say is a grand scheme to destabilize the east and south of Ukraine and cast doubts on the legitimacy of the presidential election.

Putin has denounced the acting Ukrainian government ministers as “coup-installed” and lacking any authority to make decisions on behalf of the divided country.

Ukraine’s Interim President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk took power after Kremlin-allied President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled in late February after a three-month rebellion spurred by his decision to abandon an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Yanukovich, rewarded for his loyalty to the Kremlin with a lucrative natural gas discount deal, fled Kiev after agreeing to a power-sharing agreement with the political opposition, which included Turchinov and Yatsenyuk.

Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea territory days after Yanukovich fled and took refuge in Russia. After the Kremlin forces occupied the Crimean parliament, communications centers and military bases, they backed local nationalists in staging a hastily organized referendum on secession from Ukraine and annexation with Russia.

The Kiev interim government and its Western allies suspect the Kremlin has armed and instigated the pro-Russia rebels occupying about a dozen towns and cities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and has provoked confrontations elsewhere. On Friday, 46 people were killed in Odessa when rival protest marches for and against Ukrainian unity erupted in street fighting and the firebombing of a multistory building where pro-Russia gunmen had taken up positions on the upper floors.

Accounts in Russia’s state-controlled media have portrayed the Odessa violence as evidence of the Kiev government’s threat to Russians and other minorities in Ukraine, a country of 46 million in which about a quarter of the population is Russian or Russian-speaking.

In his address in Vienna, Lavrov branded the Odessa tragedy “a blatant manifestation of fascism.”

“Defenseless people, including women, were burnt alive in the House of Trade Unions in the city of Odessa,” Lavrov said. “Fire was opened at those who tried to survive by jumping out from the windows. They (unity supporters) were scoffing at corpses.”

Russian officials have also described the government’s ongoing operation to rout separatists from Ukrainian government buildings and communications centers as a campaign targeting minority civilians.

“Holding elections at a time when the army is deployed against part of the population is quite unusual,” Lavrov told a news conference, calling on the Kiev leadership to rescind its orders for retaking the occupied eastern and southern venues.

“We are convinced that there is a way out of the crisis,” Lavrov said. “It can be found exclusively on the basis of a national dialogue” between the Kiev government and the pro-Russia rebels.

Yatsenyuk has spoken in favor of constitutional reforms that would cede power from the central government in Kiev to the regions, allowing them to decide their own economic and foreign policies. But Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman told journalists in Kiev on Tuesday that the complicated redrafting of Ukraine’s governing structure won’t be completed and ready for a public vote until late fall at the earliest.

©afp.com / Alexander Khudoteply

Russia Warns It Will ‘Respond’ If Interests In Ukraine Attacked

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday accused the United States of orchestrating the Ukraine crisis for geopolitical gain and warned that Russia will “certainly respond” if its interests in Ukraine are attacked.

In an interview with state-run Russia Today television, Lavrov linked Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kiev on Tuesday to the Ukrainian government’s resumption of efforts to oust pro-Russia gunmen holding police stations and government buildings in a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine.

The “anti-terrorist operation” launched by the interim government in Kiev last week was suspended over the Easter holiday weekend to allow the armed factions occupying key government facilities to consider an offer of amnesty to those who lay down their arms and surrender the seized buildings.

None of the occupations has ceased despite an agreement reached in Geneva last week obliging Russia to use its influence with the armed factions.

Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov announced Wednesday that the Ukrainian military operations to recover the occupied facilities had resumed. The announcement followed the discovery of two bodies believed to be victims of torture and killing by the pro-Russia gunmen holding Slovyansk. One of the dead was reported to be a Slovyansk city official loyal to the Ukrainian government who was last seen being roughed up by the occupying gunmen.

Kiev officials as well as U.S. and European leaders have accused Moscow of instigating the armed confrontations in eastern Ukraine, where some of the gunmen wear Russian military uniforms and carry Russian army-issued rifles.

“It’s quite telling that they chose the moment of the vice president of the United States’ visit to announce the resumption of this operation,” Lavrov said. He also noted that the moves against the militants aligned with Russia began “immediately after (CIA Director) John Brennan’s visit to Kiev” the previous week.

“Ukraine is just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight,” Lavrov said. “Americans are not ready to admit that they cannot run the show in each and every part of the globe from Washington alone.”

Lavrov referred to the Kiev government as “coup-appointed” and described Turchynov’s order for resumption of the mission to liberate the seized eastern facilities as “a criminal act” being waged at the direction of Washington.

“There is no reason not to believe that the Americans are running the show,” Lavrov said of the unrest that has beset Ukraine since November, when protesters took to the streets of Kiev and other major cities in western Ukraine in anger at former President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to abandon an economic alliance pact with the European Union.

The protests escalated into a three-month rebellion against Yanukovich, who eventually fled Kiev in late February and took refuge in Russia. The Kremlin has refused to recognize the current interim government as legitimate or authorized to make decisions for the country.

Lavrov cast the confrontations in eastern Ukraine as a similar challenge to Russian security as in the brief 2008 war with Georgia over its breakaway South Ossetia region. Russian forces invaded South Ossetia after Georgia sent troops to regain control of territory occupied by pro-Russia rebels.

“Russian citizens being attacked is an attack against the Russian Federation,” Lavrov warned in the television interview. “If we are attacked, we would certainly respond. If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed what he insists is an obligation to protect Russians under threat anywhere and used that pretext to invade, seize and annex Ukraine’s Crimea territory within weeks of the ouster of Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally.

Lavrov did not make clear what Moscow would consider as an attack on its interests but similarly vague warnings preceded the Crimea takeover.

Photo via Sergei L. Loiko/Los Angeles Times/MCT