Kerry's change of course signals Ukraine talks

Possible negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea appeared more likely after the nation’s top diplomat abruptly scrapped his plans Saturday to return to the United States.

Kerry, who has been in Saudi Arabia with President Obama, opted instead to fly to Paris, signaling that a meeting with Lavrov could come as early as Monday. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the meeting with Lavrov had not yet been scheduled, but that it would occur “early next week.”

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According to a senior administration official, Kerry and Lavrov have been attempting to negotiate a solution that would de-escalate the situation in Ukraine. 

Russian military forces moved into the ethnically Russian Crimean peninsula late last month, in a move they described as a bid to protect Russian nationals from the new, pro-Europe interim government in Kiev. After a referendum vote within Crimea that heavily favored secession, Russia moved to formally annex the territory.

The U.S. and Europe have slammed the incursion and annexation as a violation of international law, and moved to impose sanctions against a Russian bank favored by the Kremlin, as well as top associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On March 10, the Russian government presented the U.S. with a proposal for a diplomatic resolution for the crisis. The U.S., in coordination with the Ukranian government and European allies, presented a counterproposal this week.

On Friday, Putin called Obama to discuss the U.S. offer, according to the White House. 

Obama suggested to Putin that “Russia put a concrete response in writing” to the proposal. The pair also agreed to have Kerry and Lavrov meet to discuss a path forward.

A senior administration official refused to detail the specifics of the U.S. plan.

But, the official said, “previously we discussed general elements of an off-ramp, including: international monitors, pull back of Russian forces, and direct Russia-Ukraine dialogue - supported by the international community - taking into account the Ukrainian government's openness to constitutional reform and upcoming Ukrainian elections.”

In an interview with CBS News that aired Friday, Obama suggested Moscow could ease tensions if it began direct talks with Kiev, and moved back tens of thousands of troops conducting military drills just across the border.

"You've seen a range of troops massing along that border under the guise of military exercises, but these are not what Russia would normally be doing," Obama said. "It may simply be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that they've got additional plans.

"And, in either case, what we need right now to resolve and de-escalate the situation would be for Russia to move back those troops and to begin negotiations directly with the Ukrainian government as well as the international community."