UNITED NATIONS — The delay in implementing Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union leaves space for a settlement of the Ukraine crisis, the Russian foreign minister said Friday.
Moscow has softened its tone considerably since Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko delayed the new economic agreement with the European Union. Russia had voiced extreme anger over the West's bid to pull Ukraine, once a Soviet Republic, out of Moscow's political and economic orbit.
With a cease-fire in place, albeit routinely violated, and a delay in the EU agreement, "I hope that the settlement process will become sustainable," Sergey Lavrov said, speaking at a news conference at United Nations headquarters.
The United States has been deeply at odds with Moscow over western assertions that Russia has a big troop and heavy arms presence in eastern Ukraine in support pro-Russian separatists. Bloody fighting in the east has raged for months since pro-European protesters drove former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich from office. Ukrainian troops have been fighting to retake industrial cities — important to the Russian arms industry — that were taken over by pro-Russian separatists after the Yanukovich ouster.
But with Ukraine's central government now promising autonomy to the country's eastern, largely Russian-speaking region and fighting slowly declining, Lavrov said he saw hope for agreement.
"I hope the settlement process will become sustainable. It can only be gradual, sequential and requiring appropriate assistance when all external stakeholders and players are in the same key," he said a day before he was to address the U.N. General Assembly.
Lavrov also said he was "cautiously optimistic" that an agreement will be reached on Iran's nuclear program before the November deadline. Russia's top diplomat said negotiators are very close, pending resolution of small but very important details.
"I remain cautiously optimistic. If we look at the drafting process of the text (of a deal), we are very close to our goal, but there are sections remaining," he said. "These sections are the most complicated, but I have this feeling that all parties are interested in seeing a productive resolution."
Russia, the U.S., Britain, France, the European Union and Germany are negotiating with Iran to constrain its nuclear program to prevent it from having the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful generation of electricity and medical research, but it has created an array of centrifuges for enriching uranium that far exceeds what is necessary for their declared purpose.
Iran has complied with an interim agreement that holds its program in place, with a November deadline for a final deal. It is demanding the West lift crippling sanctions imposed on Tehran, penalties that finally brought the Iranians to the negotiating table.
Lavrov also asserted that Russia already was deeply involved in helping Syria and Iraq fight the scourge of the Islamic State group that has taken over large swaths of both countries.
As regards President Barack Obama's assembly of an international coalition to battle the Islamic terrorists, Lavrov said his country was already and permanently battling terrorism.
"We are fighting against terrorism consistently, constantly, not just when someone announces a coalition," he said. "It's not some pop-up idea as regards a specific threat emanating from" the broad spectrum of radical groups.
He said Moscow was providing military hardware and specialists to help its Syrian ally and Iraq.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this story.