LONDON, United Kingdom — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on March 14 in a bid to broker a solution to the crisis in Ukraine, in which pro-Moscow Crimean Russian forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, sparking a Cold War-like standoff between Russia and the West.
The talks between Washington and Moscow’s top diplomats came just two days before people in the ethnic Russian-majority region were due to vote in a Moscow-backed referendum whether to join Russia, whose troops now occupy Crimea.
Kerry and Lavrov’s discussions are being viewed as a last ditch attempt to prevent the plebiscite, with the chief U.S. diplomat expected to warn his Russian counterpart that the vote, as well as Russia’s military involvement in Crimea, could lead to the imposition of American and European sanctions against Moscow.
Adding to tensions ahead of discussions in London, Russia launched new military exercises near its border with Ukraine, sending 8,500 artillery soldiers along with 1,500 paratroopers to take part in the drills, the Russian Defense Ministry said on its website. The paratroopers and their equipment would be air dropped into the Rostov region bordering Ukraine for the exercises, which are scheduled to last two weeks and will also involve rocket launchers, anti-tank guns, howitzers and other weapons, according to the ministry.
Before leaving Washington for London on Thursday, Kerry warned of sanctions against Moscow if the referendum was allowed to proceed. “There will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here [in Washington]with respect to the options that are available to us.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country purchased 24% of Russia’s gas exports in 2012, also warned that there would be consequences for Moscow if it continued to support Crimea’s bid to become part of Russia. “If Russia continues on the course of the last weeks, it won’t just be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” Merkel said Thursday in a speech to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament. “It would also cause massive economic and political harm to Russia.”
Crimea is about 60% ethnic Russian and its residents are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of joining Russia in the March 16 referendum, which is being held to ratify an earlier vote by the region’s parliament to leave Ukraine and accede to Russia.
Crimea’s parliament voted to become part of Russia after Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president, Victor Yanukovcyh, was impeached by the country’s national parliament on February 22 in the midst of massive demonstrations calling on Yanukovych to relinquish the presidency. On the same day that Ukraine’s parliament voted to impeach Yanukovych, the pro-Russian president fled Kiev and crowds of anti-Yanukovych demonstrators seized control of presidential administration buildings in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
Less than a week later, on February 27, pro-Moscow Russian forces moved to take control of strategic locations in Crimea, seizing key buildings in the region’s capital, Simferopol, and taking over Crimea’s main airports. Within days, the region was completely under the control of Russian soldiers, who had already been stationed in Crimea because the peninsula is home to a number of Russian military facilities, and Moscow’s ethnic Crimean Russian allies.
Although the Russian parliament approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to deploy troops to Ukraine on March 1, the Russian president has denied that his country’s troops were involved in the takeover of Crimea, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and about a dozen Russian military installations under longstanding agreements between Moscow and Kiev. An agreement signed in 2010 between Moscow and Kiev extended Russia’s lease on its Black Sea Fleet base–which it has maintained since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991–until 2042.
The origins of the Ukraine crisis can be traced back to late November 2013, when thousands of protesters erected a tent camp in the country’s capital after Yanukovych backed out of a long-planned Association Agreement with the European Union. The accord, which had been years in the making, would have incorporated Ukraine into the EU’s common market and put Kiev on a path to joining the 28-nation bloc.
Since Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic fissures tend to mirror the country’s political divisions, ethnic Ukrainians from the west supported the agreement with the EU and took to the streets of Kiev after Yanukovych backed out of the accord.
Almost a month later, on December 17, 2013, Yanukovych held a summit with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, during which the two leaders agreed to a substantial cut in the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas. In addition to reducing the from around $400 per thousand cubic meters to $268.50, Putin also agreed to use money from his country’s national welfare fund to purchase $15 billion of Ukraine’s sovereign bonds.
– Eric Erdahl