The demands were issued as US secretary of state John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov met in Paris in another bid to calm tensions.
After a brief call to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, Kerry sat down with Lavrov at the residence of the Russian ambassador to France to go over Moscow’s response to a US plan to de-escalate the situation as Russian troops continue to mass along the Ukrainian border.
The men said nothing of substance as they shook hands, although after Kerry ended the photo op by thanking assembled journalists, Lavrov cryptically added in English: “Good luck, and good night.”
Appearing on Russian television ahead of his talks with Kerry, Lavrov rejected suspicions that the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine is a sign Moscow plans to invade the country following its annexation of the strategic Crimean peninsula.
“We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine’s borders,” he said.
Russia says the troops near the border are there for military exercises and that they have no plans to invade, but US and European officials say the numbers and locations of the troops suggest something more than exercises.
And, despite the Russian assurances, US, European, and Ukrainian officials are deeply concerned about the build-up, which they fear could be a prelude to an invasion or intimidation to compel Kiev to accept Moscow’s demands.
In his interview, Lavrov made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine’s stability and neutrality.
“We can’t see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement,” he said, adding that he understood the US was open to the idea.
US officials have been coy about their position on a federation and insist that any changes to Ukraine’s governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralising power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. However, they are exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.
The plan that Kerry and Lavrov are discussing covers Ukrainian political and constitutional reforms as well as the disarmament of irregular forces, international monitors to protect minority rights and direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, according to US officials.
Kerry and Lavrov have met several times and spoken by phone almost daily since the crisis began, but have not yet been able to agree on a way forward.