WASHINGTON DC —
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called talks Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov "constructive and frank" but said that Russia is not prepared to make any decisions on Ukraine until after a referendum in Crimea set for Sunday.
Kerry said the U.S. continues to favor a direct dialogue with Russia and Ukraine. He added that the U.S. does not recognize the legality of a referendum that could see Crimea break away from Ukraine and join Russia.
While Kerry said he will remain in contact with Lavrov, "there will be consequences if Russia does not change course."
Speaking to reporters before Kerry's press conference in London, Lavrov described the talks as "useful" but added that wide gaps remain between Russia and the West.
Still, Lavrov added that there is no common ground on Ukraine issues between Russia and international parties.
"We will respect the will of the Crimean people," he said, referring to Sunday's referendum.
Lavrov also said the crisis in Ukraine is not the "fault of the Russians."
Crimea means more to Russia than the Falklands mean to Britain, he added, referring to islands that set off a conflict between Argentina and Britain in 1982.
Lavrov added that Russian forces have no plans to invade eastern Ukraine.
Friday's talks were at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in London and lasted more than six hours..
Speaking to reporters in Washington after Lavrov's comments, U.S. President Barack Obama said he remains optimistic for continued dialogue with Russia.
"We continue to hope that there is a diplomatic solution to be found,'' Obama said. "But the United States and Europe stands united, not only in its message about the Ukrainian sovereignty but also that there will be consequences if, in fact, that sovereignty continues to be violated.'
U.S. and European leaders have called the Russia-backed referendum "unconstitutional," and Kerry has warned Moscow of serious consequences if it annexes the Ukrainian peninsula.
But Russian officials say voters in Crimea have a right to self-determination following last month's collapse of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday rejected Western accusations that a Crimea referendum would be illegal.
In a telephone conversation with U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Putin "underscored that the decision to conduct [the referendum] fully corresponds to the norms of international law and the U.N. Charter'', the Kremlin said.
Before beginning talks on Friday, Kerry said he looked forward to meeting with Lavrov, but called the situation "difficult," saying much time has been lost.
Moscow on Thursday acknowledged deploying thousands more troops and military hardware near the Ukrainian border for maneuvers that will continue for two weeks.
A senior State Department official says the U.S. is "very concerned" about the deployment, which adds to the 20,000 troops Kerry estimates Russia may have in Crimea.
The official said this is the second time in a month "that Russia has chosen to mass large amounts of force on short notice without much transparency around the eastern borders of Ukraine."
Kerry meets Hague, Cameron
The U.S. secretary of state met with British Foreign Minister William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron ahead of his talks with the Russian foreign minister.
"We want to see progress as much as you do," said Cameron. We want to see Ukrainians and the Russians talking to each other. And if they don't then there are going to have to be consequences. I think the alignment of Britain and the European Union with the position that the U.S. is taking is absolutely right. We must keep at them."
Kerry thanked Cameron on behalf of president Obama. He said that Obama was very grateful for Europe's unity and for Cameron's strong position.
"I think we're all hoping that we don't get pushed into a place where we have to do all this. But we'll see what happens," said Kerry.