Kerry and Lavrov lock horns over Ukraine crisis
US Secretary of State John Kerry will on Tuesday lock horns with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the crisis in Ukraine, as a week of high-stake talks get into full swing.
Underlining Ukraine's problems, despite a fragile truce with pro-Moscow rebels, the parliament is set to confirm on Tuesday the country's fourth defence minister since Russia's seizure of Crimea in March and subsequent separatist uprising in the east.
The dismissal of embattled defence chief Valeriy Geletey after only three controversy-filled months on the job highlights a sense of failure that has enveloped the once-proud force as the six-month conflict with the pro-Russian gunmen drags on and the death toll from fighting approaches 3,400.
Washington is pressing Moscow to use its influence to ease the tensions in Ukraine, while Lavrov will be keen to put forward Russia's dissatisfaction at US and EU sanctions imposed as a result of the crisis.
The Russian ruble slumped Monday to new all-time lows against the euro and dollar despite the central bank spending billions to defend the currency as the spillover from the Ukraine crisis and falling oil prices pummel the economy.
Putin has called 17,600 troops deployed near Ukraine for months back to their bases -- a decision analysts linked to his desire to see biting Western sanctions suspended or at least rolled back.
Analysts said Putin's decision will be cited by Lavrov when he tries to convince Kerry that the US and EU economic restrictions on Russia's for its actions in Ukraine are no longer justified.
The troop pullback may also be designed to splinter the united stance that Washington and Brussels forged after months of EU foot-dragging over sanctions against Russian banks and oil companies.
Some European nations with close energy and financial ties to Russia blame the weakness of their economic recoveries on the trade war that Moscow launched in reprisal for the West's punitive campaign.
- Crucial talks -
Ukraine's pro-West President Petro Poroshenko on Monday asked National Guard irregular forces commander Stepan Poltorak to become the country's new defence minister.
"I talked to the generals and met regular soldiers, battalion commanders," Poroshenko told the 49-year-old career military man in a televised meeting.
"These conversations convinced me about the accuracy of my choice."
Poroshenko on Sunday accepted the resignation of Geletey who was pilloried for the August loss of more than 100 soldiers trapped near the Russian border by separatist militias who went on to seize back lost territory with the alleged support of Russian troops.
The military's performance has humiliated Ukrainians who had been celebrating the success of a popular uprising that ousted the then Kremlin-backed leader in February and propelled Kiev on its westward course.
But the August bloodbath soon saw Kiev agree to a Moscow-sponsored truce deal that included the rebels' right to self-rule and exposed Poroshenko to charges of ceding a vital eastern industrial region to Russia.
Poroshenko has been painstakingly polishing his defence credentials ahead of an October 26 parliamentary ballot that could decide the success of the remaining four years of his presidential term.
Some analysts called Poltorak a politically safe choice who will help Poroshenko calm the undercurrents of resentment running through the armed forces.
Others said the nomination will also probably be cheered in Moscow because it boosted Poroshenko's election chances and diminished the threat of nationalists who reject all talks with Russia from winning the vote.
"The Kremlin is watching these elections, hoping that parliament is filled with people like Poroshenko who are ready to work with Moscow," said Kiev military analyst Valentyn Badrak.
Poroshenko told the nation he was taking decisive steps to end the country's worst crisis since its 1991 independence and defend Ukraine's interests in the face of Russia's "aggression" against its western neighbour.
His message of strength and peace come as a crucial week of high-level negotiations get underway, starting in Paris on Tuesday with the Kerry-Lavrov talks.
Poroshenko himself is expected to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for the third time since his May ascension to power on the sidelines of a Milan summit of Asian and European leaders on Friday.
Kerry and Lavrov will also discuss the situation in Syria before the Russian foreign minister goes on to hold talks with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.
© 2014 AFP