(KIEV, Ukraine) – Foreign ministers from around the world didn’t strike a deal over the Ukraine crisis Wednesday, but they agreed on one key thing, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: They’d rather talk than fight.
“All parties agreed today that is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry told reporters after a series of meetings in Paris with foreign ministers from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia.
Kerry described the talks as “the beginning of a negotiation” and called them “very constructive.” Finding a resolution will be difficult, he said, “but I’d rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday.”
Kerry said it was up to Russia “to choose to de-escalate the situation” in Ukraine by having its troops return to their military bases and “welcome international observers and human rights monitors” into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
“The United States is ready to work with all parties” — including Russia — “to make that happen,” Kerry said.
The United States’ position on the crisis has not changed, he said.
“Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity has actually united the world in support of the Ukrainian people,” Kerry said.
Ukrainian officials claim that Russian troops have entered its territory on the Crimean peninsula by the thousands, something that Russian leaders deny.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that an agreement with the United States had been reached to help Ukraine implement a February 21 deal over the transition of power in Ukraine. But Kerry did not mention that agreement in his remarks Wednesday.
Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, met three times Wednesday in Paris. They greeted each other cordially during one session at the Russian Embassy, according to the pool reporter traveling with Kerry.
Kerry urged direct talks between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the crisis, the official said.
One of those meetings included a “brief and informal discussion” among Kerry, Lavrov, Britain’s William Hague, France’s Laurent Fabius and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the official said.
“We are all concerned at what is happening there (Ukraine),” Lavrov told reporters. “We agreed to continue those discussions in the days to come to see how best we can help stabilize normalize the situation and overcome the crisis.”
By day’s end, Lavrov had not met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andrii Deshchytsia.
But Ukrainian acting Economy and Trade Minister Pavlo Sheremeta told CNN that he believed there had been some communication between officials from the two countries.
“I think our prime minister talked to the Russian prime minister,” he said.
Earlier Wednesday, NATO warned it was reviewing its relationship with Russia and threats of sanctions — and retaliations — flew between Europe and Russia.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the international body had decided to “put the entire range of NATO-Russia cooperation under review” to send “a clear message Russia’s actions have consequences.”
Planning for the first NATO-Russia joint mission — the maritime escort of a U.S. ship involved in neutralizing chemical weapons — has been suspended, though the decision will not affect the destruction of chemical weapons, he said.
And no staff-level civilian or military meetings with Russia will take place “for now,” Rasmussen said.
In addition, he said, the organization will “intensify” its partnership with Ukraine, stepping up engagement with its civilian and military leadership through increased joint training and exercises and doing more to include Ukraine in multinational projects.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and the two leaders discussed possible moves to normalize the situation, the Kremlin said.
Possibility of sanctions
Russia has been warned that possible sanctions will be on the agenda when European Union leaders meet Thursday in Brussels if no progress is made in ending the showdown sparked by Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine’s Crimea region.
The impact of sanctions, if they were imposed, might be felt by other countries, too. In a tit-for-tat move, Russian lawmakers are drafting a law that would allow Russia to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies if sanctions are slapped on Moscow, Russian state media reported.
The Russian threat was not specific, but numerous large European and U.S. companies have interests in the region and Russia is a major supplier of gas to Europe.
What happens at the EU meeting on sanctions “will be partly determined by Russia’s willingness to sit down with Ukraine,” Hague said.
If no progress can be made on de-escalating the situation, then there will be “costs and consequences,” Hague said.
Russian forces remain in effective control of Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula of Ukraine that is home to a large Russian naval base, in a standoff with Ukrainian forces loyal to the new, interim government in Kiev.
Fears of instability
Tensions mounted on the ground in Crimea. Robert Serry, the U.N. envoy to Ukraine, was threatened by armed men in Sevastopol who wanted him to get into a car, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told reporters Wednesday.
The United Nations expects local authorities to provide protection for Serry to return to his hotel from a cafe where he had stayed put, Eliasson said. CNN affiliate ITV reported that Serry had agreed to leave Ukraine immediately.
In the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, protestors took over a local government building and were seen heading to the local treasury, witnesses told CNN Wednesday.
The protesters were calling for a referendum on the status of the Donetsk region and said they want to see the region gain more autonomy.
Kerry: Clear legal obligations at stake
In the Paris discussions, Kerry reminded Moscow that it had, like Washington and London, signed an agreement in 1994 — when Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons — “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.”
There are “very clear legal obligations that are at risk in this,” Kerry said.
At issue is Russia’s insistence that the new, acting government in Ukraine is not legitimate.
Western powers argue that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country, leaving a void that had to be filled. They point out that the interim government was voted in by a large majority of parliament, including members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.
In a joint statement after their meeting, the United States, the United Kingdom and Ukraine called for international observers to be deployed to Ukraine.
This, they said, “would help address any concerns regarding irregular forces, military activity and the treatment of all Ukrainians irrespective of their ethnicity or spoken language.”
Russia has cited a putative threat to ethnic Russians in Ukraine as a justification for military intervention in the country.
France: Invasion violates international law
On Tuesday, Putin denied Russian troops were in Crimea, but said he was reserving the right to take military action to protect the safety of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.
He slammed the interim government, which replaced Yanukovych, a Russian ally, as illegitimate.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, set out a different point of view Wednesday as he declared that sanctions could be in the cards.
“The invasion of one country into another is contrary to all international laws,” Fabius said via Twitter. “We must return to dialogue and to bear in mind that Ukraine should work with Russia and the EU.”
On Tuesday, Kerry accused Russia of making up reasons for intervention in Ukraine, saying “not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims.”
NATO Secretary General Rasmussen and Ukrainian acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk are due to meet Thursday.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced Wednesday in Brussels that the EU would offer an aid package worth $15 billion (11 billion euros) to Ukraine. He said the package was “designed to assist a committed, inclusive and reforms-oriented” Ukrainian government.
Barroso said on Twitter that the aid package would consist “of immediate short and medium term measures offering trade, economic, technical and financial assistance to #Ukraine.”
During his visit to Kiev on Tuesday, Kerry announced the United States will give Ukraine’s interim government $1 billion in loan guarantees. Senior U.S. administration officials told CNN the move would help insulate the Ukrainian economy from the effects of reduced energy subsidies from Russia.
Ukrainian authorities have said they will need $35 billion by the end of 2015 to keep their struggling economy afloat.
Meanwhile, the EU said it had acted to freeze what it suspects are misappropriated Ukrainian state funds held in Europe by 18 people whom it did not identify.
Lavrov: Military coup in Ukraine
Lavrov, speaking Wednesday morning in Madrid, Spain, showed no signs of retreating from the position taken Tuesday by Putin.
The Russian foreign minister said the crisis had begun when the international community failed to react to the anti-government protests that preceded Yanukovych’s ouster.
“There was a military coup, and the legitimate president was removed by methods which were not in the constitution or legislation,” Lavrov said. “If we are so lenient to the people who are trying to govern our neighbor, everyone must realize a bad example can be spread and there shouldn’t be any double standards.”
Lavrov restated Putin’s denial that the troops who control Crimea are Russian, saying the troops in question are “self-defense” forces over whom Russia has no control.
Moscow wants an agreement that was signed February 21 between the government of the ousted Yanukovych and the opposition to be the basis of any settlement. It promised new elections, constitutional reforms and the disbanding of illegal armed groups.
Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council, told reporters in Kiev on Wednesday that the situation in Crimea was calmer than it had been Tuesday.
Parubiy said Russian forces had made no new military gains on the peninsula but warned of the danger of new attempts by pro-Russian protesters to take over government buildings in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Several U.S. officials said that though those Russian forces had, for the most part, not returned to their barracks, they saw no major strategic movements by them on either side of the border — for the second consecutive day.
By Laura Smith-Spark and Michael Holmes
CNN’s Michael Holmes reported in Kiev, and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and contributed in London. CNN’s Pete Burn, Tom Watkins, Elise Labott, Richard Roth, Khushbu Shah, Neda Farshbaf, Damien Ward, Carol Jordan and Larry Register contributed to this report.