WASHINGTON U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to London to meet with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday to discuss proposals for resolving the Ukrainian crisis days before a referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region on joining Russia.
Kerry told lawmakers that he was traveling at the request of President Barack Obama, who met with Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk at the White House on Wednesday.
Russia's bloodless seizure of the Crimea has brought U.S.-Russian relations to one of their lowest points since the Cold War, with no sign that tensions are easing.
"Our job is to try to present them with a series of options that are appropriate in order to try to respect the people of Ukraine, international law, and the interests of all concerned," Kerry said in testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee about the State Department's 2015 budget request.
"We will offer certain choices to Foreign Minister Lavrov and to President (Vladimir) Putin, through him, and to Russia, with hopes, and I think the hopes of the world, that we will be able to find a way forward that defuses this and ... finds a way to respect the integrity and sovereignty of the state of Ukraine," Kerry added.
Kerry met with Lavrov twice in Europe last week on the sidelines of conferences in Paris and Rome. He gave the foreign minister a one-page paper laying out proposals for ending the standoff over Crimea, including the idea of a "contact group" bringing Russia, Ukraine and other countries together to forge a diplomatic solution.
U.S. officials said Lavrov was not authorized to make decisions and took the proposals back to Putin.
Crimeans voting in a referendum on Sunday are expected to back secession from Ukraine to join Russia, adding weight to calls for an international response. Ukraine's government and Western nations have rejected the Russian-backed referendum as illegitimate.
Kerry told legislators that the United States recognized that Russia has long-standing interests in Crimea, where a small majority of people are ethnic Russians. But he said nothing justified Russia's takeover in the Black Sea peninsula.
"We need to approach this in ways that we get Russia to be able to respect the sovereignty of the country, the integrity of international law, the rights of Ukrainian people to make decisions for themselves even as Russian speakers and Russia's interests can be appropriately met," Kerry said.
He declined to get into details about the administration's plans to impose sanctions on Moscow if a solution is not found. Washington has already prepared the way to impose banking, business and other sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials.
Kerry suggested Russia's economy could ill afford the impact of U.S. and European Union sanctions. The United States surprised oil markets on Wednesday with the first test sale of crude from its emergency oil stockpile since 1990, prompting a drop in oil prices, in what some observers saw as a message to Russia.
"I don't want to go into all of the detail except to say ... it can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions," he said. "So, our hope is that indeed there is a way to have a reasonable outcome, here."
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would impose strict sanctions on Russians involved in the intervention in Ukraine and provide aid to the new government in Kiev.
Kerry, who met earlier with Yatseniuk at the State Department, said it was not clear whether Russia will annex Crimea.
"They may well, but they may have the referendum, have the vote and not move in the Duma (legislature) to do the other things," he said.
"Or, you know, now I hear talk about the potential of secession as an alternative and so forth. That obviously, in our judgment, would be contrary to the constitution of Ukraine and an illegal act and I'm not sure that it would be recognized under those circumstances," he added.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Susan Heavey and Jonathan Oatis)