Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russia's foreign minister Sunday in Paris as the West pressed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine.
Kerry, after a brief meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, sat down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the residence of the Russian ambassador to France. Kerry and Lavrov appeared for photos but gave little indication of Moscow's response to U.S. efforts at de-escalating the situation -- as Russian troops continue to mass along the Ukrainian border.
Russia wants the former Soviet republic to be unified in a federation allowing wide regional autonomy. Lavrov, in a Saturday interview on Russian-controlled TV, made clear that Moscow believes a federation is the only way to guarantee Ukraine's neutrality.
"We can't see any other way to ensure the stable development of Ukraine but to sign a federal agreement," Lavrov said in the interview, adding he understood the United States was open to the idea. He reiterated Russian claims that the deployment of tens of thousands of troops near the Ukraine border were solely to conduct military exercises.
"We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine's borders," Lavrov said.
U.S. officials have insisted that any changes to Ukraine's governing structure must be acceptable to the Ukrainians. Ukrainian officials are wary of decentralizing power, fearing that pro-Russia regions would hamper its western aspirations and potentially split the country apart. However, they are exploring political reforms that could grant more authority to local governments.
Kerry had been headed home from Saudi Arabia on Saturday when he abruptly headed to Paris after a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland.
Also Saturday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told Fox News there remained "a huge possibility that Russia could invade and seize Ukrainian territory."
Yatsenyuk also told Fox that there was reason for optimism after an hour-long phone call between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday. "Diplomacy is always the best way forward," he said.
It was Putin's phone call — reports of which varied, depending on whether U.S. or Russian officials were delivering the details — that set off the latest efforts at diplomacy.
Russian officials said Putin had complained about activities of what he called "extremists" in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, and other regions.
Steven Pifer, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Kerry's U-turn back to Europe was a good sign. But he expressed skepticism about Russia's moves and motives.
"It's a good thing that there's a conversation going," Pifer said. But he noted that "we continue to see the Russian massing of forces along the eastern Ukraine border. The question will be, does Lavrov have something new to say?"
What many foreign policy experts have called the gravest risk to East-West relations since the Cold War began just five weeks ago with the fall of Ukraine's pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, after months of protests.
Since then, Russia invaded and, after a hastily called referendum, annexed Crimea, an ethnic Russian region of Ukraine. U.S. and European nations, along with the United Nations and NATO, condemned the move and have imposed increasingly tough economic sanctions on Russian government leaders.