PARIS — Pro-Russian citizens in Ukraine's Crimea region must be willing to replace armed forces with international observers if the new government allows a vote for more autonomy, Ukraine's foreign minister said Wednesday ahead of a possible meeting with Moscow's top diplomat.
Andriy Deshchytsia, in an Associated Press interview before he planned to head to the airport for a flight home, also struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone toward Russia, whose troops have taken over the Crimean government.
But only 90 minutes later, he said he would remain in Paris for the night after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry renewed prospects for a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Attempts earlier Wednesday had failed to arrange what would be the highest-level meeting between officials from Russia and the new government in Kiev since the crisis began.
It was the latest twist as Kerry and Western officials sought to ease the standoff between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the upstart government in neighboring Ukraine that ousted its Moscow-friendly president last month.
Putin responded by sending troops to Crimea, a pro-Russian peninsula in southeastern Ukraine where some are demanding a referendum for independence from Kiev.
Deshchytsia said such a vote would be unconstitutional. But he said Kiev is willing to consider giving more autonomy to Crimea and other regions though what he described as a plebiscite. He said that could only happen in the presence of international observers, and without violence or armed groups in the streets.
"So this could be done where people can express their will or how they want to improve life in their local regions," Deshchytsia told the AP. "We wanted to deliver this message to the Crimea but they do not recognize us. So that is the problem."
He said he "absolutely" wanted to inform Lavrov of the offer.
He also was unequivocal in insisting that Crimea must remain part of Ukraine. "There's no question," Deshchytsia said.
His message appeared part of a new appeal by Kiev to soothe demands in Crimea for independence. Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, announced the offer of a local vote just hours earlier, in a separate AP interview.
Kerry met with Lavrov twice Wednesday on the sidelines of a Paris conference focused on aid for a refugee overflow in Lebanon from the civil war in neighboring Syria. He was expected to brief reporters later Wednesday evening after additional talks with French diplomats.
Deshchytsia said Kiev and Moscow are working to retain economic ties and trade, and said long-standing cultural ties between the two counties must be minded even as the West presses to penalize Russia for the military advance in Crimea.
Ukraine's shaky economy could take a significant hit if the value of Russia's ruble continues to drop, even though Europe and the U.S. are preparing a financial aid package for Ukraine, including a $1 billion loan guarantee for energy.
"We have to think of the outcome for Russia — how Russia will adjust to what has happened," Deshchytsia said. "We have to all think how to find out the way to keep Russia in the international community. Our position is to use all the peaceful means, all the diplomatic ways to settle the issue without victims and tragedy — and without taking territory away."
"We don't want war with Russia," he said.
Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP