Russia and US meet over crisis in Ukraine

US announces more military aid for Eastern European nations as Lavrov and Kerry talk for first time on crisis in Crimea.

    The top diplomats of Russia and the US have met for the first time over the crisis in Ukraine, a meeting that coincided with a US announcement it was increasing military support for Eastern European allies.

    The US secretary of state, John Kerry, met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday in Paris, as diplomatic efforts intensified to end the standoff in the Crimea region of Ukraine, where pro-Russian troops are in effective control.

    However the US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, told senators in Washington DC that he was preparing to bolster military co-operation with Poland and Baltic states to show "support" for its allies after Russia's intervention.

    "The Defence Department is pursuing measures to support our allies," Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee,

    He added that the measures included expanded aviation training in Poland and increasing the US role in NATO's air policing mission over Baltic countries.

    "This is a time for wise, steady, and firm leadership." 

    "It is a time for all of us to stand with the Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity and sovereignty, and their right to have a government that fulfils the aspirations of its people."

    The United States has a small team of about 10 airmen stationed in Poland to support military training efforts while NATO has been conducting air patrols over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for 10 years, as they do not have viable air forces.

    Diplomatic game

    Lavrov and Kerry met on the sidelines of a meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who were in France to discuss the civil war in Syria.

    Lavrov earlier reiterated Russian statements that soldiers deployed to Crimea were not Russian, and that he could not order the "self defence" forces back to their bases because they did not answer to Moscow.

    However, he stated: "We will not allow bloodshed. We will not allow attempts against the lives and wellbeing of those who live in Ukraine and Russian citizens who live in Ukraine."

    He also said it was up to the Crimean and Ukrainian authorities to grant international observers access.

    Lavrov was also expected to meet his Ukraine counterpart, Andrey Deshchitsa, later in the day at separate talks, which the US and Britain hailed as an opportunity for "direct communication".

    Deshchitsa said: "Today the Ukrainian future will be decided ... We want to keep neighbourly relations with the Russian people. We want to settle this peacefully."

    Nearing bankruptcy

    The European Commission meanwhile announced an aid package worth at least $15bn for the Ukraine government.

    Ukraine is near bankruptcy and the EC announcement is in addition to a $1bn aid package promised by the US.

    Europe's $15bn aid to Ukraine could help prevent recession

    Putin does not recognise the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which in turn accuses Russia of a military invasion in Crimea.

    Troops believed to be Russian took over Crimea on Saturday, placing forces around its ferry, military bases and border posts.

    A spokesman for Ukraine's defence ministry told the AFP news agency on Wednesday that Russian forces seized part of a Ukrainian missile defence unit.

    The command post and control centre of the base in Evpatoria, on the western coast of Crimea, however remained under Ukrainian control, the source said.

    Elsewhere in Ukraine, about a dozen pro-Russian demonstrators were reportedly injured when an estimated 1,000 protesters took back the regional government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, an AFP reporter witnessed.

    Some demonstrators could be seen with bloodied faces after they pushed through ranks of police with cries of "Russia!" and "Fascism will not pass!"


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