PARIS/MOSCOW U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, discussed ways to defuse the Ukraine crisis during talks in Paris on Sunday in which Kerry made clear Washington still considered Russian actions in Crimea "illegal and illegitimate."
Kerry said after his four-hour meeting with the Russian foreign minister that while they differed on events leading to the crisis, both sides recognized the importance of finding a diplomatic solution that meets the needs of the Ukrainian people.
"Both sides made suggestions of ways to de-escalate the security and political situation in and around Ukraine," Kerry told a news conference, adding he raised "strong concerns" with Lavrov about the presence of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, which he said created a climate of fear and intimidation.
The two were seeking to hammer out the framework of a deal to reduce tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. The Russian move into Crimea, following the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russia president in February, has sparked the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War ended two decades ago.
Kerry added: "In a frank conversation this evening with Foreign Minister Lavrov, I made clear that the United States still considers the Russian actions to be illegal and illegitimate."
Western leaders are considering broader sanctions against Russia that would target vital sectors of its economy including its mainstay oil and gas industry.
Both Kerry and Lavrov said the Ukrainian government has to be part of the solution.
"Neither Russia, nor the United States, nor anyone else can impose any specific plans on Ukrainians," Lavrov told a separate briefing as quoted by the RIA news agency.
Kerry said: "The United States is consulting with Ukraine at every step of this process and we will not accept a path forward where a legitimate government of Ukraine is not at the table.
A spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said earlier that the EU strongly favored "meaningful dialogue" between Ukraine and its old Soviet-era master Russia.
The United States and EU have meted out two rounds of sanctions on Russia, including visa bans and asset freezes for some of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, to punish Moscow over its seizure of Crimea, a Russian-majority Black Sea peninsula.
The Kerry-Lavrov meeting in Paris came days before NATO foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday that is likely to focus on Ukraine and Russia's actions.
America's top general in Europe has been sent back early from a trip to Washington in what the Pentagon on Sunday called a prudent step given Russia's "lack of transparency" about troop movements across the border with Ukraine.
General Philip Breedlove, who is both NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the head of the U.S. military's European Command, arrived in Europe on Saturday evening. He had been due to testify before Congress this week.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Wirting by Peter Cooney; Editing by Sandra Maler)