In Ukraine talks, finger-pointing and little sign of progress

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KIEV, Ukraine -- The first round of talks on Ukrainian national unity descended into grandstanding and accusations Wednesday, offering no sign of a diplomatic breakthrough in the region's tensest standoff since the Cold War.

Although strongly backed by the West and ostensibly by Russia, the negotiations as they are currently cast are unlikely to have an immediate effect on the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine. During the talks, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk pressed an offer to give more powers to Ukraine's regions.

But he and other members of the interim government in Kiev have ruled out a seat at the negotiating table for the pro-Russian separatists who have captured administrative buildings and are confronting Ukrainian military forces in deadly skirmishes in the east.

Yet several politicians from the east who are distrustful of the new government came to Kiev, engaging with the interim leaders, two former presidents and other representatives of Ukraine's religious and business communities.

The talks, more than anything else, appeared to lay bare the gulf between those Ukrainians who support the interim government and those who do not. Pro-Kiev representatives often seemed to argue that the unrest and distrust throughout the east was strictly engineered by Russian operatives. Angry easterners, meanwhile, suggested that such comments only proved their point that officials in Kiev were out of touch with Russian speakers in the east, who are deeply skeptical of the pro-Western uprising that ushered in the interim government in February.

Nevertheless, the talks Wednesday amounted to the tenuous start of a process of negotiations being conducted under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Vienna-based body that includes European powers as well as the United States, Russia and others.

An OSCE peace plan calls for both sides to end the violence. In return for amnesty, the separatists would have to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, both sides would engage in negotiations on explosive topics, including decentralization of power and the legal status of the Russian language.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned in a Bloomberg Television interview that Ukraine was closer than ever to civil war, and said any attempt by its government to join NATO would be "an issue" for Moscow. But he also said Russia has "no intention" of sending troops into eastern Ukraine, despite Western fears that Moscow will invade.



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