Russian stance firm in reply to U.S. proposals

By Hannah Allam

Russian President Vladimir Putin's government responded overnight to Secretary of State John Kerry's proposal for a contact group that would facilitate direct Ukrainian-Russian talks and work to disarm irregular forces - steps the Obama administration says will help deescalate the crisis in Crimea.

Moscow's answer, apparently, is: No, thanks.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at the Tuesday briefing that the Russians' reply merely repeated Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's statements from appearances in Paris and Rome.

In other words, there was no sign from Putin that he's willing to consider the U.S. "off ramp" proposal and planned to go ahead as scheduled with a controversial referendum Sunday that's likely to lead to the annexation of the Crimea region of neighboring Ukraine. The United States and several of its allies have called the vote illegitimate and won't recognize the results.

Psaki said Kerry followed up on the reply in a phone call with Lavrov Tuesday morning. She said Kerry "reiterated his willingness to engage," but also warned that any further escalation in Crimea would make diplomacy "difficult." One way to read that statement is a thinly veiled warning of further sanctions against Moscow; the U.S. already has travel bans and visa revocations in place for some officials.

Psaki said Kerry isn't against going to Moscow - Lavrov invited him - but stressed that the "environment has to be right."

"We didn't see that in the responses we received," Psaki said.

Kerry, she added, thinks "it's unacceptable that Russian forces and irregulars continue to take matters into their own hands."


by Hannah Allam
McClatchy Interactive