ENEVA/MOSCOW - Foreign ministers from East and West will try to defuse the Ukraine crisis on Thursday in Geneva, once frequently the scene of Cold War negotiations, but will risk being upstaged by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
With Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, prospects of significant progress at the four-way talks appear slim. By contrast, what Putin says during his annual "hotline"session with the Russian people may have far greater influence on events in Ukraine's rebellious east.
Thursday's talks will bring the ministers of Russia, Ukraine and the United States together with the European Union's foreign policy chief to discuss a crisis in which Kiev is struggling to reassert its authority in eastern towns largely controlled by armed pro-Russian separatists.
Upon arriving in Geneva on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia said there still is time for negotiations to ease tensions with Russia.
"I think that we still have a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means," he said. "And we will try hard. We are trying hard - not only Ukraine - but also the United States. However, the time is now, not only to express the concerns, but to look for a more concrete and adequate response to Russia's plans and actions."
Kiev and the West believe Moscow is stirring up the unrest and a senior US official made clear that Russian leaders had to de-escalate the crisis. "The idea here is that they would stop aiding and abetting and supporting these separatists and that they would pull their troops back from the borders," the official told reporters as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva.
Other US officials said in Washington they did not anticipate a breakthrough in Geneva, adding that it was reasonable to assume that more sanctions would be imposed against Russia if there was no progress. Additional sanctions could come from Washington as soon as Friday.
US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that Russia can expect further sanctions if it steps up support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
"What I have said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to destabilize Ukraine and violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences," he said in an interview with CBS. "Mr. Putin's decisions are not just bad for Ukraine, over the long term they're going to be bad for Russia," he said.
Putin has accused the Ukrainian government of risking mass bloodshed by using its military to try to crush the rebellion in the largely Russian-speaking East. "The sharp escalation of the conflict puts the country, in effect, on the brink of civil war," the Kremlin quoted Putin as telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week.