US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday urged his Russian counterpart to open a dialogue with the new government in Kiev and attempt to find a way out of the crisis in Ukraine.
Just hours after saying Moscow could not order "self-defence" forces in Crimea back to their bases, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held the first face-to-face talks with the US since a pro-Moscow Ukraine government was ousted, prompting the de facto takeover.
US officials said Kerry had a brief discussion with Lavrov on the sidelines of an international meeting in Paris on Lebanon.
"The secretary urged direct talks between Russia and Ukraine," one official said.
Lavrov and Kerry also briefly met the German, British and French foreign ministers and France's President Francois Hollande. But hopes of engineering direct Russia-Ukraine talks hung in the balance amid confusion over whether Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, had left Paris.
An official at Ukraine's embassy said Deshchytsia had left for the airport having failed to secure a meeting with Lavrov. That was denied by US officials, who said they were still hopeful the meeting could take place.
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Adding to the confusion was a Ukrainian report that UN envoy Robert Serry had been detained by unidentified gunmen in Crimea's capital, Simferopol.
In other moves yesterday, the European Union offered Ukraine's new pro-Western government €11 billion (HK$117 billion) in financial aid in the next couple of years provided Kiev reaches a deal with the IMF.
And the US Defence Department, in an apparent attempt to signal resolve to Moscow, announced military measures to support Nato allies adjoining Russia and Ukraine.
Earlier in the day, Lavrov repeated the assertion - ridiculed by the West - that the troops who seized control of the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula were not under Russian command.
"If you mean the self-defence units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," Lavrov said in Madrid before travelling to Paris.
"As for the military personnel of the Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites ... We will do everything not to allow any bloodshed."
In the US, a senior administration official said President Barack Obama had spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday and discussed a potential resolution to the crisis.
Under what officials called an "off-ramp" to the crisis, Russia would pull its forces in Crimea back to their bases, limit Russian troop numbers to a Ukraine-mandated ceiling of 11,000, and allow international monitors to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians were protected.
It would also see Russia and the new Ukraine government negotiate a solution to the crisis through a "contact group" probably under the auspices of a pan-European security body.
But analysts say Russia is unlikely to withdraw, forcing the US and Europe into a more limited strategy of trying to prevent President Vladimir Putin from further advances. Moscow showed no signs of backing down yesterday with Russian forces partly seizing two missile facilities in Crimea.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse