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Ukraine crisis stirs Kerry-Lavrov tensions

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis on the sidelines of an International conference on Libya in Rome on March 6, 2014
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet to discuss the Ukraine crisis on the sidelines of an international conference on Libya in Rome on March 6, 2014

Russian-US tensions over Ukraine exploded into a public row Monday, as Secretary of State John Kerry refused to attend talks in Moscow after his counterpart snubbed Kiev's interim leaders.

Russia's wily foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, came out swinging first, putting the much-travelled Kerry on the spot by denouncing him for turning down an invitation to meet on Moscow on Monday.

Washington has led global efforts to defuse tensions since Russian troops deployed troops last week in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula after a months-long tussle over Ukraine's future direction.

The pro-Russian region, home to Moscow's Black Sea Fleet, will hold a potentially explosive vote on Sunday on whether to split from Ukraine and join Russia -- threatening to tear the country apart.

Kerry handed over proposals on a diplomatic way forward to Lavrov when the two men met twice in Paris and Rome last week, and which were refined after they talked by phone on Saturday.

But, in a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said Kerry's ideas "do not suit us very much" and that his US counterpart had changed his mind after initially agreeing to come to Moscow.

The Russian government, he said, will now make a series of counter-proposals "on the basis of international law and take into account the interests of all Ukrainians without exception."

Washington hit back, claiming Moscow was not serious in its efforts, as it had snubbed talks with Ukraine's interim leadership, brought in by parliament after the pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych fled the country last month.

Pro-Russian forces dubbed the 'military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea' stand before their swearing-in ceremony in the Republican military enlistment complex in Simferopol on March 10, 2014
Pro-Russian forces dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" stand before their swearing-in ceremony in the Republican military enlistment complex in Simferopol on March 10, 2014

Kerry is prepared to take part in talks "if and when we see concrete evidence that Russia is prepared to engage" with Washington's proposals, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The US wants to see an end to Russian military activities in southern Crimea and that Moscow allows independent observers from the OSCE into the area.

"We want to see a halt in the drive for annexation of Crimea," Psaki said, as the clock ticks down to Sunday's referendum.

The US proposals would also help set up talks between Russia and Ukraine, perhaps through some kind of contact group being put together by the US and its EU allies.

Psaki bluntly rejected any suggestion that Kerry was shirking his responsibility to meet with Lavrov.

"He never shies away from hopping on a plane or having an in-person meeting, but we want to ensure that that is undertaken with seriousness on the other end as well," Psaki said.

The global community is seeking to shore up the interim Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who is due to visit the White House on Wednesday, ahead of snap presidential elections in May.

But Moscow is refusing point blank to talk to the interim leaders, maintaining they have been put in place illegitimately.

"The point is we're not just going to walk into something, where they're just going to say 'no, no, no' to everything and we've travelled all the way there. We're not going to do that," a State Department official said, asking not to be named.

President Barack Obama's welcome for Yatsenyuk shows the United States "believes the Ukrainian government has responsibly filled the vacuum left by the sudden, hasty and voluntary departure" of Yanukovych, White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

In his latest call to a prominent world leader on the crisis, Obama spoke Monday to President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan about Ukraine, the National Security Council said on Twitter.

Kazakhstan is a key potential member of the Eurasian Economic Union that Putin hopes to set up with ex-Soviet states. So was Ukraine.

But Yanukovych's ouster and Ukraine's expected turn towards the West leaves the plan for the bloc -- supposed to compete with the EU -- in doubt.

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