LONDON – An eleventh-hour U.S. effort to resolve the growing confrontation with Russia over Ukraine failed Friday, and Moscow shipped more troops and armor into the flash-point Crimea region ahead of a planned vote on breaking away from Ukraine and rejoining Russia.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned against a “backdoor annexation” by Russia of the strategic Black Sea peninsula. But Kerry conceded that six hours of talks in London with Russia’s top diplomat neither stopped Sunday’s vote nor opened a new diplomatic path for Moscow to step back from the Cold War-tinged standoff.
The most significant U.S. and European sanctions against Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union appeared all but certain.
“We don’t have a common vision of the situation,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after the talks.
He stressed that Russia insists on Crimea’s right to hold the referendum. He said Russia would decide after the vote on how to respond.
Voters in Crimea will decide whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia or remain part of Ukraine with greater autonomy.
The vote will be held under the eyes of Russian troops who effectively took control of Crimea late last month after protesters overthrew the Ukrainian government. The Crimean regional parliament has already voted to leave Ukraine, and the traditionally pro-Russian population of Crimea is expected to approve the idea as well.
Moscow’s tightening grip on Crimea and the gathering of Russian troops along the two countries’ border have unnerved Ukrainians and left the country’s fledgling government concerned about further Russian military action. Kerry said the United States was deeply concerned about those deployments.
The European Union is expected to impose travel bans and asset freezes Monday on Russians accused of complicity in Moscow’s military incursion and the intimidation of Crimea. The EU on Friday named more than 120 people as potential sanctions targets.
In London, Lavrov insisted that Russia had no plans to invade Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. But he echoed a statement issued in Moscow by the Foreign Ministry warning that Russia “reserves the right to take people under our protection.” Overnight clashes between pro- and anti-Russian demonstrators in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk led to the death of one protester.
In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, campaigning for Sunday’s referendum was in high gear Friday. Vans with megaphones blared Russian music in the streets around the regional parliament, where a Russian flag already flies.
Vasilyev Maxim, an official from the Russian city of Kursk, said he drove to Crimea with thousands of Russian flags purchased with $10,000 of his own money to distribute ahead of the vote.
“In 30 years, the history books will say Putin took back Crimea to rebuild our country,” he said. “And no one will remember Kerry or that (President Barack) Obama had anything to do with the situation.”
Lavrov said at his news conference that there were other precedents for Crimean secession besides the often-cited example of Kosovo. He referred to the Comoros Islands, which declared independence from France.