MOSCOW (Reuters) - The United States stepped up its diplomatic drive to salvage Ukraine’s shaky peace process on Monday by sending a senior State Department official to Moscow to seek common ground over a conflict that has cost more than 6,100 lives in the past year.
Victoria Nuland’s visit to Moscow came days after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the conflict, which has badly strained bilateral ties.
Nuland, who is assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, discussed with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin detailed provisions of a peace accord clinched in Minsk in February.
The deal has contributed to an overall easing of hostilities between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine but has failed to bring a lasting settlement.
“All sides in the conflict need to be talking about a full ceasefire, a full pull-back, (they) need to be withdrawing military equipment, and that includes the military support that the Russian Federation is providing to the separatists in the east,” Nuland told reporters after her talks, .
Moscow denies Western and Ukrainian accusations that it is providing arms, troops and training to the rebels.
The United States has let its NATO allies Germany and France take a more prominent role, along with Ukraine and Russia, in seeking to end the crisis.
“The United States’ role here is to support the full implementation of Minsk. We are doing this in lockstep with ... our colleagues in the EU, with Germany and France ... and Ukraine,” Nuland said.
In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry urged Kiev to speak directly with the rebels, whom the Ukrainian government has branded “terrorists”.
Karasin was quoted by Tass news agency as saying Moscow had the impression that Kiev was preparing a new military offensive in east Ukraine. Nuland dismissed such a possibility.
“There is no indication from our own information or from my consultations in Kiev that anybody on the Ukrainian side ... has any intention of launching new hostilities,” she said.
“Any new hostilities ignited by separatist forces with Russian support would also be a violation of Minsk.”
Nuland said she set some hope with four working groups formed this month to bring Kiev and the rebels together to tackle security, humanitarian and other aspects of the crisis.
She said she had also discussed on Monday allowing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the whole Russia-Ukraine border and to inspect convoys crossing from Russia into the rebel-held territory.
Nuland has been strongly criticised by Russian state media in the past over her support for pro-democracy activists in Kiev during mass street protests that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed Nuland’s visit on Monday as a further sign that Washington was seeking to engage with Moscow again after a prolonged chill in ties.
“When President Putin was meeting with Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Kerry... it was mentioned that a closer dialogue ... was needed,” Peskov told reporters.
Additional reporting by Katya Golubkova; Editing by Gareth Jones