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Progress reported on tenuous Ukraine

| Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 9:24 p.m.

PARIS — The Obama administration claimed progress on Wednesday toward resolving a Cold War-style standoff with Russia over its military incursion in Ukraine, even as the Pentagon moved to reassure nervous NATO allies by positioning fighter jets closer to Russia.

“I'd rather be where we are today than where we were yesterday,” Secretary of State John Kerry said after a chaotic day of diplomatic outreach to Russia. He added that he did not want to raise false hopes of an immediate end to the confrontation, the worst with Russia since Russian forces moved into Georgia six years ago.

The United States and Britain appeared to maneuver throughout the day to draw Russia into talks with Ukraine's acting foreign minister.

The Ukrainian diplomat, Andrii Deshchytsia, traveled to Paris on Kerry's plane on Tuesday in hopes of beginning diplomatic talks that the United States and Britain view as a way for Russia to back away from confrontation.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday that many foreign ministers gathered in Paris for an unrelated meeting on Lebanon were urging Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to sit down with the Ukrainian diplomat.

The goal is to “bring the Russians into a diplomatic process,” Hague said, “at least a start of it.”

Deshchytsia spent much of Wednesday waiting for a meeting that never happened, and Kerry denied during a late evening news conference that such a face-to-face had ever been the goal.

“I had no expectation, zero expectation,” Kerry said, adding that Deshchytsia was present because it would have been “inappropriate” for world powers to discuss Ukraine's fate without him.

The East-West standoff over Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has escalated in the days since a pro-Russian government collapsed and former opposition leaders took over. They have promised elections in May. Russia does not recognize the temporary government in Kiev and insists that fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych is Ukraine's legitimate leader.

The United States claims that thousands of Russian troops have flowed into Crimea in the past several days. The Black Sea area has a majority Russian-speaking population, and many there identify strongly with Russia. The Russian government has said those residents' rights are threatened by what it considers an illegitimate “coup” in Kiev.

Russia has made no move to withdraw forces to their bases in Crimea, where Russia maintains a naval outpost. Ukraine is unlikely to fight to keep Crimea, however, and neither the United States nor its allies appear willing to commit military forces.

NATO has said it plans to strengthen ties with Ukraine by stepping up involvement with the country's “civilian and military leadership.” Although Ukraine is not part of the 28-member alliance, NATO said it would help to strengthen the Ukrainian army with joint training and exercises.

The United States followed up with word that it would move additional F-15 fighter jets and a refueling tanker from Britain to Lithuania at the request of Baltic nations that are members of the alliance originally formed as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that NATO was reviewing the “entire range” of its cooperation with Russia, and that staff-level and military meetings with Russian counterparts would no longer take place.

The Obama administration is especially keen to offer Russian President Vladimir Putin a face-saving way out of a confrontation with the West that is building toward U.S. and possible European sanctions on Russia.

The United States has made Russia a key partner in diplomatic overtures involving Syria and Iran, and wants to avoid further rupture. Obama is offering to consider Russia's concerns over the future of Russian speakers in Ukraine “point by point,” the administration said, and proposes a team of international monitors in the flashpoint Crimean Peninsula.

Kerry and Hague first invited Lavrov to a meeting Wednesday morning in Paris with the Ukrainian official. The Russian did not attend.

Lavrov turned up later in Paris, where foreign ministers were gathered to discuss Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis. Those talks were largely overtaken by the Ukraine crisis, which was the subject of Kerry and Lavrov's first face-to-face discussion since street protests in Kiev turned deadly last month.

After the meeting, Kerry said he and Lavrov considered several ways to lower tensions, though he gave no details, and said intensive discussion will continue.

Despite Kerry's entreaties for calm, the State Department tweaked Putin a bit, releasing a statement concerning “10 False Claims About Ukraine” attributed to the Russian leader.

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