(CNN) — Despite talks between ministers from both sides, a key Ukrainian figure offered little indication Tuesday that there’s been movement away from the brink of war threatening to embroil his Eastern European nation.
Petro Poroshenko, a parliamentarian who has been charged with leading negotiations with the new government of Crimea — a disputed region thought to be threatened by a Russian takeover — told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that “today we (had) the first sign of contact between our minister of defense and Russia’s minister of defense,” as well as similar talks involving other corresponding ministers.
“But it is not a negotiation, unfortunately,” said Poroshenko, a billionaire businessman and former Ukrainian foreign minister. “We try to do our best to use any opportunity for peaceful negotiation. But … we don’t have any sign of hope … from the Russian side.”
There have been plenty of provocative, perhaps telling, public statements.
Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted on Tuesday his military isn’t planning to seize the Crimean peninsula, saying any action would “only be to protect local people.”
This area had been part of Russia until being ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Russia has a military base there today.
Should Russian troops intervene, Putin said, “It will be legitimate and correspond to international law because we have a direct request from a legitimate president and it corresponds to our interests in protecting people who are close to us.”
Poroshenko said that ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia last week after months of public unrest against his government that ultimately boiled over into violence, has no legitimacy.
That includes having no right to ask Russia to send troops into Ukraine to restore him to what he feels is his rightful post as president, according to Poroshenko, who insisted only Parliament can invite foreign troops.
“His (political tenure) is finished, and he is a criminal,” said Poroshenko, “especially after yesterday’s appeal to have foreign troops come here and start a war.”
Ukrainian military bases still besieged
While no blood has been spilled between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, no one is breathing easy.
For days, Ukrainian military facilities in Crimea have been under siege.
At one base in Crimea — which is in the southern part of the country, along the Black Sea — crews installed barricades blocking Ukrainian forces in. They said they were sent by the new pro-Russian regional government.
In one dramatic incident, Ukrainian troops approached Russian positions to talk and were met with warning shots fired into the air and orders to turn back.
In an apparent show of force and unity, Ukraine’s naval flagship steamed through the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey on Tuesday on its way back to Ukraine from an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Africa, CNN’s Ivan Watson reported from a boat in the narrow channel.
A crowd of supporters waving Ukrainian flags gathered on the shore to cheer the frigate on.
Russian state media had claimed the ship had defected, along with thousands of other troops from military units in Crimea. CNN crews in Crimea saw no sign of such defections and the Ukrainian government denied that they had occurred. The frigate was clearly flying the Ukrainian flag.
The biggest standoff may be brewing along the Ukrainian-Russian border, involving many more troops and potentially a much bigger conflict.
Putin has ordered about 150,000 Russian troops who had been taking part in military exercises near the border back to their barracks. But that order didn’t involve troops already in Crimea, nor did it reassure Ukraine’s new interim leadership based in the capital of Kiev.
Russian troops and vehicles remain near the country’s eastern border, according to Ukrainian officials.
Andriy Parubiy, head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told Parliament that Ukraine has doubled its security presence at checkpoints along its border with Russia.
Kerry: U.S. ‘will stand by the Ukrainian people’
Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis bore little fruit Tuesday.
Ukraine’s interim prime minister said that cabinet ministers from both his and Russia’s governments have had consultations, albeit “slow-moving” ones. And Russia has declined an invitation to meet with Ukrainian officials Wednesday in Paris.
Poroshenko, who is heading Ukraine’s efforts to forge a peaceful resolution over Crimea, said his government is “constantly trying to” have conversations with Moscow.
“We think that, without any negotiating … the escalation process and the temperature on the Crimea is rising up,” he added.
NATO members are set to meet Wednesday with Russia’s ambassador to the alliance, which gathered in emergency session amid Poland’s fears that any potential conflict could spread around the region.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday that despite repeated calls by the international community, “Russia continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and continues to violate its international commitments.”
There’s no talk of a military response, but there has been action in other ways.
“I think everybody recognizes that although Russia has legitimate interests in what happens in a neighboring state, that does not give it the right to use force as a means to exerting influence inside of that state,” U.S. President Barack Obama said.
Ukraine’s Parliament ratified a deal Tuesday to receive loans from the European Union worth 610 million euros, the equivalent of nearly $839 million, to help prop up Ukraine’s shaky economy.
Representatives of the International Monetary Fund were headed to the country to begin inspections ahead of a possible financial deal. And U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced a $1 billion loan guarantee for Ukraine.
Kerry visited Kiev on Tuesday, laying flowers in honor of slain protesters at Maidan, or Independence Square, and accusing Russia of making up reasons to intervene militarily.
“Not a single piece of credible evidence” supports Russian explanations for its move into Crimea, said the top U.S. diplomat. He added, “Russia has talked about Russian-speaking citizens being under siege. They’re not.”
Washington prefers a peaceful resolution to this crisis, Kerry said. But if that doesn’t happen — and Russian steps up its military involvement — “our partners will have absolutely no choice (but) to join us to continue to expand on steps we have taken in recent days to isolate Russia diplomatically, politically and economically.”
“The United States will stand by the Ukrainian people as they build the strong democratic country they deserve,” Kerry said. “… We must all step up and answer their call.”