By Matthew Lee
PARIS: After a week of travel in the Mideast, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry changed course and arrived in Paris on Saturday for talks with his Russian counterpart on the Ukraine crisis.
Halfway home from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Kerry landed in Shannon, Ireland, for a refueling stop, when he decided to turn his plane around and headed to Paris. Kerry is to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tonight at the Russian ambassador’s residence.
Kerry spoke to Lavrov on the flight to Shannon after President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a call Friday to have their foreign ministers meet to discuss a possible diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine situation.
While in Paris, Kerry may also meet separately with the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki on Saturday confirmed the day and general time of the Kerry-Lavrov meeting.
During Friday’s hourlong call Obama urged Putin to withdraw his troops from the border with Ukraine. The Russian leader, who initiated the call, asserted that Ukraine’s government is allowing extremists to intimidate civilians with impunity — something Ukraine insists has not happened.
The White House and the Kremlin offered starkly different summaries of the call, which occurred while Obama was traveling in Saudi Arabia. The contrasting interpretations underscored the chasm between how Moscow and Washington perceive the escalating international standoff sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea away from Ukraine.
White House officials described the call as “frank and direct” and said Obama had urged Putin to offer a written response to a diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine crisis that the United States has presented. He urged Moscow to scale back its troop build-up on the border with Ukraine, which has prompted concerns in Kiev and Washington about a possible Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine.
The Kremlin, on the other hand, said Putin had drawn Obama’s attention to a “rampage of extremists” in Ukraine and suggested “possible steps by the international community to help stabilize the situation” in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, meanwhile, ex-world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, considered a strong contender to become Ukraine’s next leader, upended the country’s presidential race Saturday by announcing he will throw his support instead behind a billionaire candy maker.
Klitschko told his UDAR party that he plans to run for mayor of Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev, paving the way for current presidential favorite, businessman Petro Poroshenko, in the May 25 vote.
The move is likely to ensure that both men cement powerful positions in Ukraine’s new government and block the chances of a full return to power from the country’s former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
Both Klitschko, 42, and Poroshenko, 48, played prominent roles in the months-long protest movement that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovych in February.
Today is the deadline for presidential candidates to submit their bids.