Kerry set to meet Lavrov ahead of Crimea referendum

The United States says it will present Russia with options to defuse the crisis

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov ahead of scheduled referendum on the independence of Crimea.

At the request of U.S. President Barack Obama, Kerry told lawmakers he would fly to London late Thursday for last-ditch talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We will offer certain choices to Foreign Minister Lavrov and to President (Vladimir) Putin through him and to Russia, with hopes, and I think the hopes of the world, that we will be able to find a way forward that defuses this,” he said.

The top Russian and U.S. diplomats clashed in a series of face-to-face meetings in Rome and Paris last week, as well as three tough phone calls, over how to end the Ukraine crisis.

Thousands of Russian troops have deployed in Crimea, home to Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, and the flashpoint peninsula is now preparing for a Sunday referendum on whether to split from Ukraine.

Putin has discussed the situation in Ukraine’s Crimea region by telephone with a leader of the Crimean Tatar community, Russian news agencies reported on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

Many Crimean Tatars plan to boycott a Russian-backed referendum on Sunday on whether the region, where Tatars make up about 12 percent of the population, should split from Ukraine and join Russia.

Tatars, like many ethnic Ukrainians on the peninsula, are strongly opposed to falling under the control of Russia and want be governed from Kiev. Some Tatars have joined demonstrations calling for “national unity,” Reuters reported.

Kerry spoke just before welcoming interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who will also hold White House talks later in the day in a strong show of U.S. support, according to AFP.

Kerry this week snubbed an invitation to go to Moscow to meet Putin, as U.S. officials said there was no indication Russia was prepared to negotiate with the new leadership in Kiev after presenting a series of proposals to end the crisis.

After months of pro-democracy protests, tensions over the future direction of Ukraine exacerbated when pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych fled and Russian troops moved into Crimea, gifted to Ukraine in 1954.

Moscow has refused to recognize the new leadership brought in by parliament to steer the country until new elections in May, and Washington and the European Union have anxiously watched tensions flare.

Washington had “a responsibility to be engaged,” Kerry said at the start of a House hearing on the State Department’s 2015 budget request.

“Our job is to present them with a series of options,” he said referring to Moscow, adding US interest was “protecting the sovereignty and the independence and the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

The United States has already unveiled visa bans against Russians and Ukrainians blamed for threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty.

And it has threatened targeted economic sanctions.

“It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions,” Kerry warned.

If was not in anyone’s interests to isolate Moscow, “but we will do what we have to do if Russia cannot find a way to make the right choices here.”

Kerry also cautioned against lawmakers who said Russia would move to annex Crimea.

“They may well,” he said but added “there are a lot of variants here,” which was why he needed to meet again with Lavrov.

[With AFP and Reuters]