US tells Russia not to 'isolate' itself as West seeks Ukraine solution
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russia Thursday not to isolate itself "through its own actions" as top diplomats grappled with elusive peace efforts in Ukraine but Moscow lashed out at biting sanctions.
President Vladimir Putin accused the West of using the Ukraine conflict as a pretext to restrain a muscular Russia with sanctions and defiantly declared that Moscow would overcome the blow to an economy on the brink of recession.
However, Putin said in a state of nation address he would not sever ties with the West over the conflict as the 57 members of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) met in Switzerland to discuss a shattered truce agreement between warring parties in eastern Ukraine.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that the eight-month conflict had raised the spectre of "a new division of Europe" as East-West relations plunged to frosty lows not seen since the Cold War.
"We have not advanced as much as we would like in defusing this crisis. The danger of a new escalation cannot be ruled out," he told journalists in the Swiss city of Basel.
Diplomats at the meeting called for a renewed effort to implement a truce brokered by Russia on September 5 in the Belarussian capital Minsk that has been frequently broken, sending the death toll from the conflict soaring to 4,300.
"It is not a Ukrainian crisis, it is not an OSCE crisis, it is about Russian aggression," said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.
- Moscow can 'calm turbulent waters' -
Kerry, who met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the OSCE conference, accused Moscow of torpedoing the accord it brokered by continuing to support the rebels.
"Russia continues to supply new weapons and increase support for armed separatists" in Ukraine, and thus is failing "to live up to an agreement that it actually negotiated and signed".
He insisted however that "the United States and countries that support Ukraine's sovereignty and rights do not seek confrontation".
"It is not our design or desire that we see a Russia isolated through its own actions."
"Moscow could rebuild trust and relationships if it simply helps to calm turbulent waters," Kerry said.
Clashes have continued around the flashpoint Donetsk airport and a fresh local ceasefire there appeared to crumble Wednesday just hours after it was signed.
A separate truce planned for the Lugansk area Friday was also shrouded in uncertainty as rebel leaders have complained about the terms.
Heavy rocket fire rang out throughout the night in Donetsk, an AFP reporter said, and the Ukrainian army on Thursday reported more than 70 rebel attacks on its positions in the past 24 hours.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who also held talks with Lavrov, urged Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
"Little can be achieved without Russia's genuine commitment and constructive engagement," she told the opening session of the two-day Basel meeting.
"The inflow of weapons, equipment and troops from across the Russian border must be halted. Equally we call for the withdrawal of any illegal and foreign forces, mercenaries and military equipment from eastern Ukraine."
- Sanctions 'having a big bite' -
In Washington US President Barack Obama said Moscow was unlikely to shift its stance until the reality of sanctions, which were "having a big bite" on its economy, sunk in.
"If you asked me, am I optimistic that Putin suddenly changes his mindset, I don't think that will happen until the politics inside of Russia catch up to what's happening in the economy inside of Russia, which is part of the reason why we're going to continue to maintain that pressure," Obama said.
Putin dismissed Russia's mounting economic troubles as the economy slides into recession under the pressure of Western sanctions and falling oil prices.
"We are ready to take upon any challenge and win," he told parliament.
"Every time someone believes Russia has become too strong, independent, these instruments get applied immediately."
During the year that Switzerland has headed the OSCE, the organisation has seen its standing swell in step with the deepening Ukraine crisis.
In its biggest operation ever, it currently has some 500 people on the ground monitoring the tattered September truce.
For Thursday's talks, Swiss President and acting OSCE chair Didier Burkhalter said his ambition was for the ministers "to stay as long as possible around the table, and not slam the door".
"I would like us to take another step towards a lasting peace. It's difficult, but possible," he said.
© 2014 AFP