A Russian soldier outside a Ukrainian base in the village of Perevalnoye. (Reuters)
Paris/Kiev, March 5 (Reuters): Russia rebuffed western demands to withdraw forces in Ukraine’s Crimea region to their bases today amid a day of high-stakes diplomacy in Paris aimed at easing tensions over Ukraine and averting the risk of war.
The EU offered Ukraine’s new pro-western government 11 billion euros in financial aid in the next couple of years provided Kiev reaches a deal with the IMF. Germany, the EU’s biggest economy, also promised bilateral financial help.
Ukraine’s new finance minister, Oleksander Shlapak, caused a fall in the Ukrainian bond and currency markets by saying his economically shattered country may start talks with creditors on restructuring its foreign currency debt.
And the US defence department, in an apparent attempt to signal resolve to Moscow, announced military measures to support eastern European Nato allies adjoining Russia and Ukraine.
Russia and the West are locked in the most serious battle since the end of the Cold War for influence in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic with historic ties to Moscow that is a major commodities exporter and strategic link between East and West.
Ukraine pulled out of a trade deal with the EU under Russian pressure last year, sparking months of protests in Kiev and the February 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally.
Ukraine says Russia has occupied Crimea, where its Black Sea fleet is based, provoking an international outcry and sharp falls in financial markets on Monday, though they have since stabilised.
The foreign ministers of Russia, the US, Britain, and Germany met their French counterpart and French President Francois Hollande in Paris to try to start a diplomatic process to defuse the crisis.
But diplomats said it was not clear whether Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov would take the crucial step of attending talks with Ukraine’s new foreign minister, a member of a government Moscow has described as illegitimate.
US secretary of state John Kerry left the meeting at Hollande’s office without making any statement.
Earlier, Lavrov repeated Moscow’s assertion — ridiculed by the West — that the troops that have seized control of the Black Sea peninsula are not under Russian command.
Asked whether Moscow would order forces in Crimea back to their bases, Lavrov told a questioner in Madrid: “If you mean the self-defence units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us.
“As for the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites ... We will do everything not to allow any bloodshed.”
Russia did not attend a meeting with Kerry, British foreign secretary William Hague and Ukrainian foreign minister Andriy Deshchytsia of the so-called Budapest group created to assure Ukraine’s security after it abandoned nuclear weapons in 1994. But Kerry and Hague said they would try to bring the Russian and Ukrainian ministers together.