PARIS (AP) — The United States and Western diplomats failed to bring Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers together Wednesday for face-to-face talks on the confrontation in Crimea, even as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry voiced optimism that an exit strategy was possible. "I'd rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday," he said.
The flurry of diplomatic activity came as NATO punished Russia by suspending military cooperation, 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.
After an intense round of diplomacy with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and several European counterparts in Paris, Kerry said the meetings were "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. "I personally feel that I have something concrete to take back and talk to President Obama about," he added, without specifying what that was.
Speaking separately after what he called "a very long day" of discussions on Ukraine, Lavrov said the sides agreed to continue talks in coming days "about how we can help in efforts to normalize the situation and overcome the crisis."
Still, there was no direct meeting between Lavrov and his Ukrainian counterpart, Andriy Deshchytsia, though the Ukrainian foreign minister said Kerry asked him to delay his flight home in hopes of getting the two to sit down together.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Deshchytsia said he had hoped to brief Lavrov on a Ukrainian plan to offer Crimea more autonomy while still claiming it within the country's borders. Any vote taken toward autonomy would require international observers to replace armed groups in order to work, he said.
"Our position is to use all the peaceful means, all the diplomatic ways to settle the issue without victims and tragedy — and without taking territory away," Deshchytsia said. "We don't want war with Russia."
But Lavrov was not ready to meet.
Leaving the French Foreign Ministry, he was asked by reporters if he had met with his Ukrainian counterpart. "Who is it?" Lavrov answered. "I didn't see anybody."
At a news conference at the U.S. ambassador's residence, Kerry played down the failure, saying there had been "zero expectation" of that, though U.S. officials said that is still the goal.
Kerry also repeated the West's demand that Russia pull its forces from the Crimean Peninsula, saying "Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity has actually united the world in support of the Ukrainian people."
On the ground in Ukraine, meanwhile, volatility reigned. A special U.N. envoy visiting Crimea came under threat by armed men who forced him to leave the region. And hundreds of demonstrators — many chanting "Russia! Russia!" — stormed a government building in eastern Ukraine, spreading concern that turmoil could engulf other Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine.
Ukraine's prime minister told the AP 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."
But most of the bargaining chips belonged to Russia, whose troops are fanned out across Crimea and control most of its strategic facilities.
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.
"We must understand that a bad example is infectious," he said.
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.