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West readies sanctions against Russia

LONDON--The top diplomats for Russia and the U.S. voiced pessimism Friday about negotiating an immediate end to the crisis in Ukraine or preventing its strategic Crimea region from voting this weekend to break off from the rest of the country.

Headed into a morning meeting in London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov each said they were glad to talk before the Sunday referendum in Crimea. The vote on the strategic Black Sea peninsula of 2 million people is widely expected to back secession and, potentially, annexation with Russia.

The U.S. and EU say the Crimea vote violates Ukraine's constitution and international law. Russia has said it will respect the results of the referendum.

The upstart government in Kiev believes the vote is illegal, but Moscow says it does not recognize the new government's leader as legitimate. If Crimea secedes, the U.S. and European Union plan to slap sanctions as early as Monday on Russian officials and businesses accused of escalating the crisis and undermining Ukraine's new government.

“This is a difficult situation we are in,” Lavrov told reporters before his meeting with Kerry at the U.S. ambassador's residence. “Many events have happened and a lot of time has been lost, so now we have to see what can be done.”

Kerry said he hoped to unearth “possibilities that we may be able to find about how to move forward, together, to resolve some of the differences between us.”

“Obviously we have a lot to talk about,” Kerry said.

European and U.S. leaders have repeatedly urged Moscow to pull back its troops in Crimea and stop encouraging local militias there that are hyping the vote as a choice between re-joining generations of ties with Russia or returning to echoes of fascism from Ukraine's World War II era, when some residents cooperated with the country's Nazi occupiers.

The showdown between Russia and the West has been cast as a struggle for the future of Ukraine, a country with the size and population similar to France, which is caught between its long-standing ties with Russia and residents' desire for more democratic and economic opportunities in the West.

Russia warned again Friday that it reserved the right to intervene in defense of ethnic Russians whom it says are under threat in eastern Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that authorities in Ukraine have lost control over the country and are unable to provide security.

Russian officials noted clashes overnight in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk as evidence of growing instability. One person died and 29 were injured in violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.

Western officials have asked Russia to start diplomatic talks with Kiev as a way of de-escalating the tensions.

British Prime Minister David Cameron on Friday underlined the threat of sanctions.

“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,” Cameron told Kerry in a separate meeting in London.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stand together prior to a meeting at Winfield House in London on Friday, March 14. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to London on Friday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a last-minute bid to stave off a new chapter in the East-West crisis over Ukraine. (AP)

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