Leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrial powers have suspended their participation in the G-8 with Russia and expressed support for the Ukrainian government, warning of "significant consequences" for Moscow's actions and adding that Russia "has a clear choice to make."
A strongly worded statement
following the group's crisis meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in The Hague demanded that Russia "respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, begin discussions with the Government of Ukraine, and avail itself of offers of international mediation and monitoring to address any legitimate concerns."
It poured criticism on Russia for its "illegal attempt to annex Crimea in contravention of international law."
The leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States agreed to move a planned G8 summit this summer from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels, saying, "We suspend our participation in the G-8 until Russia changes course."
The group remains "ready to intensify actions" that would have a negative effect on Russia's economy, they said.
The statement came after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya met on the sidelines of the same Hague summit.
The meeting was said to have been requested by the Ukrainian side, which Moscow accuses of being illegitimate following the ouster of pro-Moscow Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late February.
Lavrov said he and Deshchytsya discussed "contemporary events and tasks, which...need to be considered in order to overcome the internal Ukrainian crisis."
"A wide-ranging constitutional reform -- and let me stress, with the participation of all regions -- must be launched [in Ukraine]," Lavrov said. "We cannot impose that on Ukrainian figures. Nevertheless, this is our assessment of the situation that has unfolded there. It will be very difficult to overcome a deep internal crisis in Ukraine without it. This is, by the way, what I told acting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchitsya who asked me for a meeting. We told him what steps, in our opinion, the leaders appointed by the [Ukrainian] Rada [parliament] ought to take in order to finally establish a proper pan-Ukrainian dialogue."
Lavrov said President Vladimir Putin had instructed him to meet with Deshchytsya.
Ukrainian authorities have been requesting a meeting with Lavrov since Yanukovych fled and pro-Russian forces occupied large swaths of Crimea ahead of the unrecognized annexation by Russia of the peninsula last week.
A hastily prepared referendum was held under Russian occupation on March 16 that showed strong support for secession from Ukraine and joining with Russia, sparking the current crisis between Russia and the West, which some have called the greatest threat to security since the Cold War.
Lavrov also met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on March 24 and they "mostly spoke about Ukraine," the Russian envoy said.
He said he "emphasized once again the need to fully respect the results of the Crimean referendum," adding that the Russian side "spoke of the need to finally take a decisive action in order to prevent carousing of radicals and their infiltration into Ukraine's political life."
Kerry expressed "strong concern" about the build-up of Russian troops along Ukraine's border.
Kerry called on Russia to defuse the situation and said additional sanctions could be placed on Russia if Moscow continued on its present course.
Lavrov also downplayed the significance of Russia's possible expulsion from the G8 group of industrialized nations.
"As to the G8, well, you see, G8 is an informal club. No one hands out membership IDs for it. No one can kick anyone out of it. It may be the case that G8 has already fulfilled its mission -- and this is exactly what many people think because since the creation of G20 it is precisely where all economic and financial issues are being discussed."
Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, RFE/RL, Interfax, and ITAR-TASS