Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that the situation in Ukraine can be de-escalated if external powers cease trying to legitimize Kiev’s Maidan government. During a press conference in Moscow Lavrov also called on the Ukrainian government officials to implement reforms that would protect the rights and freedoms of all its citizens in a none-too-veiled reference to the country’s Russian-speaking ethnic groups.
Lavrov added that Russia wants to preserve Ukraine as a “non-aligned state,” signaling Moscow’s concern about the Western-backed protest movement that drove the Russian-friendly regime of Viktor Yanukovych from office. According to Ria Novosti, Russia has characterized the overthrow of Yanukovych as an “illegitimate fascist coup” and a “military seizure of power.”
Lavrov also stressed during a television appearance on Friday that Russia does not want to invade Ukraine. He vehemently denied allegations that Russia has inserted spies on the ground in the southern and eastern portions of the country. An AFP article quotes Lavrov as saying: “We have no troops there by definition.”
Some analysts believe President Putin has outmaneuvered the U.S. during this crisis given how it opened the door for Russia to annex Crimea. CNN’s Simon Tisdall believes John Kerry’s State Department may have inadvertently instigated the revolt by pushing too hard to integrate Ukraine into the West’s sphere of influence.
Putin realizes that the U.S. and its allies are not willing to go to war over Ukraine, hence Russia can operate with impunity in pressuring Kiev to adopt “some form of federal system and enhanced regional autonomy in the east.” Not to mention that Russia has massive economic leverage to do so, especially “over gas supplies and agricultural exports.”
Meanwhile, Kiev is in a stand-off against pro-Russian separatists who have seized a number of government buildings. NATO satellite photos have shown Russian armored vehicles, helicopters, surveillance aircraft and about 40,000 troops massed near the Ukrainian border. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen believes these contingents are readying for combat and accused Moscow of "stirring up ethnic tensions in eastern Ukraine and provoking unrest."