Canada has deployed unarmed military observers to Ukraine to join an international mission that will bring fresh global scrutiny to Russia's invasion of the Crimean peninsula, as the United States intensifies its diplomatic offensive.
Those efforts fell flat Wednesday, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart in talks held in Paris. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Mr. Lavrov in Paris, said he would continue talks Thursday in Rome where both are attending a meeting on Libya. Mr. Kerry said there were "serious conversations" but indicated that Western leaders do not expect a speedy end to the crisis in Ukraine, the most serious confrontation between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.
"I don't think any of us had an anticipation that we were coming here at this moment, in this atmosphere of heightened tension and confrontation, that we were suddenly going to resolve that here, this afternoon," he said.
NATO, meanwhile, announced it is suspending all meetings with Russia and reviewing its military ties with Moscow as a result of President Vladimir Putin's refusal to withdraw from Crimea. It also said it would boost military assistance to Ukraine, including more joint training and exercises.
Two Canadian Armed Forces observers have already arrived in Odessa, Ukraine, in preparation for the monitoring mission. Eighteen member countries of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have agreed to send observers – 35 personnel so far – after Ukraine requested their help.
The week-long military observer mission is taking place under a chapter of an OSCE accord that allows for "voluntary hosting of visits to dispel concerns about unusual military activities." Ukraine is a member, as is Russia.
The unarmed monitors are entering a hostile environment. A UN special envoy was run out of Crimea Wednesday after a crowd detained and surrounded him shouting "Russia! Russia!" Dutch diplomat Robert Serry was escorted to the airport without being given a chance to pick up his bags from his hotel and placed on the first flight out.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's office declined to say whether the observers will be protected by armed escorts. "These observers are specialists from the Strategic Joint Staff's Arms Control Verification Directorate. They possess the necessary training and experience to undertake missions of this nature," said Julie Di Mambro, spokeswoman for Mr. Nicholson.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also announced Canada would impose economic sanctions on members of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's government. Mr. Yanukovych fled to Moscow after he was removed from power in February. Ottawa originally announced economic sanctions against Yanukovych officials on Feb. 20 – one of the bloodiest days in the months-long crisis – but then temporarily backed off on Feb. 21 after the Yanukovych government reached a peace deal with the opposition.
"Our actions … are further examples of our support for Ukraine and our goal of stabilizing the tense situation in Crimea," Mr. Harper said. The sanctions involve "freezing of assets of corrupt Ukrainian officials [that are] held in Canada," he said.
The European Union, which on Wednesday offered recession-hit Ukraine $15-billion (U.S.) in loans and grants, has also moved to freeze the assets of 18 Ukrainian officials, reportedly including Mr. Yanukovych.
Finally, Mr. Harper announced, Canada would cut another tie with Russia over Crimea, suspending this country's participation in the Canada-Russia Intergovernmental Economic Commission (IEC), established to promote closer bilateral economic relations.
"President Putin must now immediately withdraw his forces to their bases and refrain from further provocative and dangerous actions," Mr. Harper said.
Fen Hampson, a director at the Ontario-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the military observers' ability to carry out their mission will largely depend on Russia.
"The real question is: Is this the kind of fig leaf that the Russians want so they can, in effect, return to their bases?" he said. "They can [otherwise] make life totally miserable for the observers by restricting their freedom of movement and throwing up various kinds of road blocks – literally and figuratively."
He said "there is huge potential for mischief" and noted it will be incumbent on the OSCE to withdraw the unarmed monitors if the organization feels they are in danger.
"I think this will be a very good indicator of Russia's real intentions in this situation," he said. "We will know, in fairly short order, whether they're willing to co-operate with the OSCE or not."
With a report from Reuters