Ukraine crisis: Russia vows no invasion

Russian soldiers in Crimea, 27 March Russian troops are already in full control of Crimea

Moscow has no intention of sending troops into Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said.

His comments came after the US and Russian presidents discussed a possible diplomatic solution to the crisis.

The US-backed plan calls for Russia to halt to its military build-up on the border with Ukraine and withdraw its troops in Crimea to their bases.

US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris on Sunday.

Reports say Mr Kerry was flying home from the Middle East on Saturday when he abruptly changed travel plans and instructed his plane to fly to Paris.

Analysis

If - as the White House insists - President Vladimir Putin was the one who initiated the phone call, then that is clearly a promising sign. It may mean that he thinks the military phase is over, at least for now, and Russia's best interests lie in diplomacy.

But the Kremlin's account of the phone call suggests there is some hard bargaining ahead. President Putin has introduced into the conversation the isolation of the breakaway Trans-Dniester region of Moldova. This should have nothing to do with Ukraine. But it has everything to do with Russia trying to strengthen its control in former Soviet countries.

He has also introduced the idea of international co-operation to deal with what Russia insists are "rampant extremists" threatening people and institutions. After the Trojan horse-like operation in Crimea, the government in Kiev will be very wary of any Russian involvement in Ukraine's internal affairs.

Tensions over Ukraine rose following the overthrow of pro-Kremlin Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February, following months of street protests.

Moscow later intervened in Crimea, a predominantly ethnic Russian region of Ukraine where its troops are stationed, saying the takeover in Kiev was a pro-fascist coup.

Russia then annexed Crimea after the region held a referendum which backed joining the Russian Federation.

Western countries condemned the vote as illegal and imposed sanctions on members of Mr Putin's inner circle.

Meanwhile Ukraine's interim authorities have been pressing ahead with elections due in May.

On Saturday boxer and opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko pulled out of the race for president.

He announced he was supporting billionaire Petro Poroshenko saying: "The only chance of winning is to nominate one candidate from the democratic forces."

Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has also said she will stand.

'Diplomatic means'

In an interview with state TV channel Rossiya 1 on Saturday, Mr Lavrov said: "We have absolutely no intention of - or interest in - crossing Ukraine's borders."

Sergei Lavrov: "We have no intention of crossing Ukraine's borders"

He added that Russia was ready to protect "the rights of Russians and Russian-speaking people in Ukraine, using all available political, diplomatic and legal means".

After the interview was broadcast, it emerged Mr Lavrov had spoken by phone to Mr Kerry, in a conversation that Russian officials said was initiated by the US.

That call followed an hour-long phone discussion late on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama. Mr Putin had contacted President Obama, according to US officials.

"President Obama underscored to President Putin that the United States continues to support a diplomatic path... with the aim of de-escalation of the crisis," the White House said in a statement.

"President Obama made clear that this remains possible only if Russia pulls back its troops and does not take any steps to further violate Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Head of the Russian Interior Ministry's branch in the North Caucasus Kazimir Botashev at the presentation ceremony of the top military brass in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 28, 2014. President Putin welcomed military leaders to the Kremlin on Friday

The US proposal, developed in consultation with Ukraine and other European countries, includes halting the military build-up near Ukraine's border, the deployment of international monitors in Crimea to protect the rights of Russian speakers, and the return of Russian troops there to their bases.

The Kremlin said that the Russian president had drawn Mr Obama's attention to "the continued rampage of extremists" in Kiev and various regions of Ukraine.

It said these individuals were "committing acts of intimidation towards peaceful residents, government authorities and law enforcement agencies... with impunity".

Russia's reported troop movements near Ukraine's eastern border - described by Nato as a "huge military build-up" - has triggered fears that Mr Putin's interest in Ukraine is not limited to Crimea.

The BBC's North America Editor, Mark Mardell, said Friday night's phone call could indicate tentative progress towards a diplomatic solution - just when fears were growing in the West that Russia could be about to stage an invasion of eastern Ukraine.

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