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Paris - The United States and its European allies incrementally tightened the noose of their disapproval around Russia on Wednesday, agreeing to send more money to Ukraine, dispatching international observers and more U.S. aircraft to the region, and edging closer to direct sanctions against Moscow.
With little movement reported on the ground in Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian region where Russian troops have taken control, attention focused on a chaotic day of diplomatic meetings in Europe.
Secretary of State John Kerry held his first direct meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, since street protests in the Ukrainian capital turned deadly last month and led to the ouster of Kiev's pro-Russia government. No progress was reported after the session, held at the home of Russia's ambassador to France, but Kerry and Lavrov agreed to keep talking.
Kerry cautioned against assuming "that we did not ... have serious conversations. We have a number of ideas on the table," he told reporters, even as he reiterated the U.S. position that Russia's military movement into Crimea is unacceptable.
Lavrov did not show up at a separate meeting with Kerry, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, who flew here on Kerry's plane from Kiev.
Kerry later told reporters that he had had "zero expectation" that Lavrov would accept an invitation to come to that meeting but that it would have been "inappropriate" for world powers to discuss Ukraine's fate without that country's representative.
Asked at a news conference about the Ukrainian minister - part of a government that Russia claims is illegitimate - Lavrov replied: "Who is it?"
A photo of Kerry and Lavrov tweeted by Russia's Foreign Ministry showed the two looking in opposite directions, with a caption noting that although they didn't always see eye to eye, communication was important.
No similar quips emerged from a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. A NATO diplomat, describing the session as "tense," said alliance members one by one confronted Alexander Grushko, Russia's representative to NATO, with charges that Moscow was violating international law in Crimea and concocting threats against ethnic Russians there to justify its actions.
"It was quite an uncomfortable meeting," said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door session. When it was over, NATO announced that it was suspending collaboration with Russian armed forces on several fronts, including planning for Russia to provide a maritime escort for the U.S. ship that is to destroy Syrian chemical weapons at sea in the spring.
Before meeting with the Russians, alliance ambassadors traveled from NATO headquarters across town in Brussels for a rare meeting with representatives of the European Union's policy and security committee.
EU representatives gave preliminary approval to a $15 billion aid package of loans and grants to Ukraine over the next several years, on top of a U.S. announcement Tuesday of $1 billion in energy loan guarantees.
The European package, to be approved at an EU summit today, would be partially conditioned on reforms to Ukraine's tanking economy. Kiev estimates that it needs $35 billion in international rescue loans over the next two years.
EU leaders will also consider recommendations that they impose sanctions on 18 Ukrainians, including former officials, accused of looting the national treasury.
In Washington, a senior official said there were ongoing discussions within the administration about whether the United States should unilaterally impose sanctions on Ukrainian and Russian individuals connected with corruption and the recent violence in Ukraine. Although the administration is prepared to move forward within days, "we want to coordinate with the Europeans to be most effective," said the senior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the discussions.
Some European governments with significant financial equities in Russia are reluctant to move toward major sanctions against that nation's economy and have urged the sequential approach that the administration and its partners are now taking.
The Pentagon also announced, in response to what officials said were requests from Eastern European NATO members over the past week, that it would more than double the number of aircraft it has based in Lithuania as part of a regular alliance air-defense patrol.
The patrols over the Baltic nations were initiated a decade ago and are rotated quarterly among NATO members that have the appropriate aircraft. The United States, by coincidence, is in charge of the patrols this quarter and is sending six F-15 fighter jets and a KC-135 tanker to add to the four F-15s already deployed at Lithuania's Siauliai Air Base.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said his Russian counterpart told him Wednesday that the troops in Crimea "were not regular forces. They were well-trained militia forces responding to threats to ethnic Russians in the Crimea."
Dempsey said he could not "at this time" tell Congress "where the military forces inside the Crimea came from." But "I did suggest" to Gen. Valery Gerasimov "that a soldier looks like a soldier looks like a soldier, and that the - that distinction had been lost on the international community."
To emphasize that point, the State Department issued what it said was a "fact sheet" titled "President Putin's Fiction," disputing point by point the Russian leader's claims that the troops in Crimea did not include newly deployed Russian forces, that in any case Russia's actions were legal under international agreements, and that ethnic Russians and Russian bases in Crimea were under threat from Ukrainian "extremists."
In a separate meeting Wednesday in Vienna, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said 18 of its participating states were sending 35 observers to Ukraine "to dispel concerns about unusual military activities."
The United States and its allies have warned Russia not to extend its military deployments into eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians dominate. More immediately, they have called on Russia to return its troops to Crimean bases, where they are stationed under a long-standing agreement with Ukraine; to accept international monitors to verify the situation in Crimea; and to open talks with the interim Ukrainian government.
As of Wednesday, the senior administration official said, the Russians "are not backing down from their ridiculous claims, but also have not taken further steps. So it's status quo."