Breaking silence, Israel urges diplomacy in Ukraine

Foreign Ministry expresses concern over events during crisis; Liberman to meet with Kerry, Lavrov

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at the Russian Ambassador's Residence in Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)
Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet at the Russian Ambassador's Residence in Paris, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Kevin Lamarque, Pool)

Israel is concerned about the well-being of the citizens of Ukraine and hopes the crisis will be resolved diplomatically, a statement from the Foreign Ministry released Wednesday said.

The statement was the first from Jerusalem on the crisis.

“Israel is following with great concern the events in Ukraine, is anxious for peace for all its citizens, and hopes that the situation will not escalate to a loss of human life. Israel hopes the crisis in Ukraine will be handled through diplomatic means and will be resolved peacefully,” the ministry said in a statement.

It did not elaborate on whether it was referring to the takeover of the Crimea peninsula by Russian-backed troops.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova, has made efforts in the past to bring Jerusalem closer to Moscow. In 2011, Liberman appeared with Russian President Vladimir Putin days after a contested election, drawing criticism. 

Liberman is expected to travel to Rome on Thursday, where he will meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

While no official policy on the conflict in Ukraine had been expressed prior to this statement, on February 23, the Jewish Agency said it would provide emergency assistance to Jews in Ukraine, in light of the political unrest wracking the country.

Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky said the organization would help secure Jewish institutions in the Eastern European country and launch a fundraiser to help increase security.

“Recent events have shown that we must strengthen these institutions’ security measures. We have a moral responsibility to ensure the safety and security of Ukraine’s Jews,” said Sharansky.

Ukraine is home to an estimated 70,000 Jews.

Israel’s statement came as the West ramped up efforts to urge a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Kerry on Wednesday pressed Lavrov to hold face-to-face talks with his counterpart from the new Ukrainian government on the Crimea crisis.

Kerry, who has worked closely with Lavrov on Syria, made the appeal on the sidelines of an international meeting on Lebanon in Paris.

“Secretary Kerry had a brief pull aside discussion with Foreign Minister Lavrov after the larger sideline discussion they had with other foreign ministers,” a senior State Department official said.

“The Secretary urged direct talks between Russia and Ukraine. They will be meeting again in approximately an hour to continue their discussions.”

However, Western hopes of engineering direct Russia-Ukraine talks in Paris hung in the balance on Wednesday amid confusion over whether Ukraine’s acting foreign minister had left the French capital.

An official at Ukraine’s embassy said the acting minister had left for the airport having failed to secure a hoped-for meeting with his Russian counterpart. But that was immediately denied by US officials who said they were still hopeful the meeting could take place.

A senior administration official said it would be up to Ukraine’s central government to decide the future of Crimea, where nearly 60 percent of the population identify themselves as Russians. The official said the US would oppose any Russian efforts to formally annex Crimea or recognize its independence, steps that would echo Moscow’s moves during its 2008 conflict with Georgia, another former Soviet republic.

Ukraine is in the midst of a months-long political crisis sparked by ousted President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of historical ties with Moscow. After Yanukovych fled Ukraine last week, Russian forces quickly moved into Crimea, despite Obama’s warnings that there would be costs for violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Putin’s fast and defiant dismissal of Obama’s threats sparked a new round of criticism from the White House’s Republican opponents. Republican Sen. John McCain accused Obama of having “a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

Obama and his advisers insist they still have an array of options at their disposal, the most stringent being economic sanctions that could go into effect as early as this week. The European Union appears to be treading more cautiously, but the bloc’s 28 leaders are set to decide on initial sanctions at an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday.

But even with tough economic penalties, some regional analysts say it may already be too late to reverse course in Crimea.

“The idea that there’s a contest over Crimea is a little silly,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Wilson Center, a think tank in Washington. “It’s in Russian hands and it was always on the verge of being in Russian hands.”

The Crimean peninsula is separated from the rest of Ukraine by geography, history and politics. It only became part of Ukraine when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula in 1954 to the republic where he began his political career, a transfer that hardly mattered until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine.

Crimea’s port city of Sevastopol is also home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its thousands of naval personnel. Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, extended the fleet’s lease until 2042, but Russia fears that Ukraine’s interim pro-Western government could evict it.

The US is not calling for a full Russian withdrawal from Crimea, the Obama administration official said, but does want Moscow’s forces to return to their normal operating position at their base, where they have an agreement with Ukraine to keep up to 11,000 troops. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the situation by name and would speak only on condition of anonymity.

The situation in Crimea has drawn comparisons to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Russia has continued to maintain a military presence in both, violating a cease-fire that ended its 2008 military conflict with Georgia and ignoring repeated condemnations from the US and Europe.

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