Geneva Talks Aim To Ease Tensions In Ukraine Crisis

Secretary of State John Kerry is in Geneva to meet with his diplomatic counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. They are trying to find a resolution to the crisis in Ukraine.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Okay, let's turn now to talks in Geneva. Russian and Ukrainian diplomats are meeting their US and EU counterparts in hopes of easing tensions in Eastern Ukraine. Violence between Ukranian forces and pro-Russian separatists continues to escalate there, with reports of three pro-Russian militants killed in a shooting in eastern Ukraine overnight.

NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has been following the crisis and the talks in Geneva. She joins us on the line now. Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Kelly.

MCEVERS: We understand these talks are still going on. Any sense that this means there's going to be some kind of breakthrough?

NELSON: Well, certainly by all accounts no one is expecting very much from these talks. The talks have actually concluded a short while ago. We're still waiting to hear from the foreign policy chiefs of the various players that you mentioned. But what is clear is that both or all these sides are making their positions that much more clear. I mean the Americans and the Europeans want Russia to - what they say is basically back off and not stir up trouble in eastern Ukraine, where all the clashes and building takeovers are happening at the moment. At the same time, Russia is saying that they want the Americans and the EU to back off and not, you know, they feel that they're backing this new government in Kiev, which they don't recognize. And so it seems like there really isn't much common ground that these parties are going to be able to find.

MCEVERS: And while these talks were still going on, Ukrainian and Russian leaders were going public. Russia's President Vladimir Putin was taking questions live on state TV. What did he have to say?

NELSON: Well, he was rejecting claims that Russian special forces are actually in the east of Ukraine fomenting this unrest that's going on there. But he did acknowledge for the first time that the unmarked forces that were in Crimea, which he at the time denied were Russian troops, were in fact Russian troops. And said they were there to help foster law and order and make sure that the referendum, which ultimately led to Crimea being annexed by Russia, went ahead without problems. At the same time he's saying, you know, that he doesn't really want to draw a new Iron Curtain, that all these actions are being done because Russia feared that NATO and that American and the EU were really trying to pull Ukraine away, that they were basically creating a wall around Russia. And so he was expressing hopes that there would be able to be a normalization of relations with the US, and that's something that was the first time that he actually said something softer. But he also made it clear, sanctions were not going to work, and that is something, of course, that the Americans and the European Union have been threatening to do if this stalemate isn't resolved.

MCEVERS: And Ukraine's prime minister also met with reporters today. What did he have to say?

NELSON: Well, he was pretty, pretty firm in saying that Vladimir Putin is sabotaging the country's upcoming election, presidential elections, which are next month in Ukraine. And also blamed Moscow for the deaths in recent clashes in eastern Ukraine. But it's important to note that the Ukrainians at this conference are also looking to come to some sort of dialogue or agreement with Russia. I mean this is their very much bigger neighbor on whom they rely for gas and trade and a variety of other things, and so they would prefer to assuage Russian fears that somehow - that they're leaning to the West or that Russian-speaking populations will not be protected, will not have any rights in this new country.

MCEVERS: So if we don't see anything come out of Geneva, I mean what options do the US and Europe have to reign in Putin at this point?

NELSON: Well, both have indicated they will add to the sanctions, although at the moment it seems what's going to happen is that they're going to add more individuals, Russian oligarchs or people within President Putin's inner circle, to the travel and asset-freezing list. They already have dozens of people on that list and they would just add some more. But the real sanctions that would make a difference or that economists say would make a different, which would be more sweeping sanctions affecting the financial and energy sector, those don't seem to be going forward, partly because the Europeans are very reluctant to have that happen.

MCEVERS: And quickly, why are they so reluctant?

NELSON: Because they depend very heavily on Russian gas and trade. And so Germany, for example, you're talking about a hundred billion dollars of trade and 350,000 jobs that depend on that trade.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Berlin. Soraya, thanks so much.

NELSON: Thanks, Kelly.

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