PARIS — Facing off in Europe’s capitals Wednesday, Russia and the West began building the elements of a diplomatic solution to Europe’s gravest crisis since the Cold War — even as the West appeared increasingly resigned to an entrenched Russian presence in Crimea. NATO hit back by putting Russia on suspension, and the European Union extended $15 billion in aid to Ukraine, matching the amount the country’s fugitive president accepted from Moscow to turn his back on an EU trade accord.
As peace efforts got underway in Paris and Brussels, volatility reigned on the ground in Ukraine: A special U.N. envoy visiting Crimea came under threat by armed men who forced him to leave the region. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators, many chanting “Russia! Russia!” stormed a government building in eastern Ukraine — renewing fears that turmoil could spill out of Crimea and engulf other Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s prime minister told The Associated Press in his first interview since taking office that he still feared Russian President Vladimir Putin might attempt more land grabs: “Mr. President,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk said, “stop this mess.”
Yatsenyuk vowed to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but expressed openness to granting it more autonomy. Ukraine’s foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, told the AP that pro-Russian citizens in Crimea must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if they want a vote on more self-rule.
But most of the bargaining chips Wednesday belonged to Russia, whose troops are fanned out across Crimea and control most of its strategic facilities.
A growing chorus of prominent American voices expressed resignation that Crimea was lost to Russia: “I’m not optimistic they’re going to leave,” said Michael McFaul, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Russia until last week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several European counterparts conducted an intense round of diplomacy in Paris to try to find an exit strategy in Ukraine.
Speaking at a news conference after the talks, Kerry said the encounter was “very constructive, without promising something that is not defined yet, without raising hopes that are inappropriate to raise.”
“I want to be realistic. This is hard tough stuff, and a very serious moment,” Kerry said. “But I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday.”
“I personally feel that I have something concrete to take back and talk to President Obama about,” Kerry said, though he didn’t specify what that was.
While negotiations were inconclusive, top European officials expressed optimism that at least the two sides were talking — and making progress.
“For the first time, starting with this meeting in Paris, something moved in the right direction,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Lavrov, speaking in Spain before meeting with Kerry, warned against Western support of what Moscow views as a coup in Ukraine, saying that could encourage government takeovers elsewhere.
“If we indulge those who are trying to rule our great, kind historic neighbor,” Lavrov said, “we must understand that a bad example is infectious.”
While Russia expressed openness to international mediation, a major sticking point has been Moscow’s refusal to recognize Ukraine’s new leaders, much less sit down at the table with them.
Wednesday’s Paris gathering, originally scheduled to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, came after Putin appeared to step back from the brink of war, telling reporters in his first comments since the Crimea takeover that he has no intention to “fight the Ukrainian people.”
NATO tried to apply pressure on Moscow in its own talks with Russia in Brussels.
The Western alliance’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that ambassadors for the alliance’s 28 member states decided after a meeting with their Russian counterpart to suspend plans for a joint mission as well as all civilian and military meetings.