Russia has said it won't "allow bloodshed" in the crisis on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. Ahead of an international gathering in Paris, the French foreign minister highlighted a plan for a diplomatic solution.
At a joint press conference with his Spanish counterpart in Madrid on Wednesday, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow's aim in the Crimean crisis was to prevent violence, including attacks against its own citizens.
"We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine," Lavrov said.
He also said Russia could not order the armed units in Crimea to return to their bases because they are "self-defense" forces over which Moscow has "no authority."
"If they are the self-defense forces created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we have no authority over them. They do not receive our orders," he said.
He added that because the men deployed there were not Russian forces it was up to Crimean and Ukrainian authorities to grant international observers access there.
'Keep good dialogue'
Lavrov's calls for a peaceful solution to the crisis were echoed by Ukraine's interim foreign minister at a gathering in Paris.
"We want to keep good dialogue, good relations with the Russian people," Ukraine's interim Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya said after meeting with French counterpart Laurent Fabius. "We want to settle this conflict peacefully. We don't want to fight with Russia."
Deshchytsya and Fabius met ahead of prearranged international talks on Lebanon, though Ukraine is certain to highlight the event. The US Secretary of State John Kerry, foreign ministers of Britain and Germany, among others, are also due to take part.
Lavrov was due to arrive in Paris later in the day with Kerry – the first such meeting since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted on February 22. However, it remains unclear whether the Russian foreign minister will meet face-to-face with Deshchytsya.
Yanukovych's ouster, which came after months of protests calling for closer ties with the European Union that left more than 100 people dead, sparked the greatest diplomatic stand-off between Russia and the West since the Cold War. In the ensuing days, armed pro-Russian gunmen took control of key facilities in Crimea, a majority Russian-speaking region.
Fabius said France and Germany had come up with a plan to get out of the crisis, based on the creation of a contact group including Russia, Ukraine and major Western nations.
"We will see if [the Russians] accept it," he said.
"The position of France, which is shared by Germany and others, is to be very firm with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, on the one hand, and, on the other, to move towards dialogue," Fabius added. "We are not going to declare war on the Russians but what they are doing is unacceptable. It is the invasion of one country by another."
The proposed plan includes installing a national unity government, the withdrawal of Russian forces, the dissolution of extremist militias and outlining a president election as soon as possible.
On Wednesday, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso annnounced theEU was ready to give an aid package to Ukraine of "at least 11 billion euros ($15 billion dollars) over the next couple of years."
"It is a package designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented Ukrainian government," he said.
On Tuesday, the US announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.
dr/hc (AFP, Reuters)