President Vladimir Putin and key EU leaders have met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Milan to discuss the eastern Ukraine crisis.
The leaders of the UK, Germany, France and Italy were expected to press Vladimir Putin to do more to end the fighting.
Italian PM Matteo Renzi said after the talks he was “more positive” on prospects for a solution to the crisis.
The West accuses Russia of arming separatist rebels and sending regular troops to Ukraine. Moscow denies this.
Ukraine and the rebels agreed a truce in September, but each side accuses the other of repeated shelling.
The separatists control parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
More than 3,600 people have been killed since the fighting erupted in April, following the annexation by Russia of Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsular a month earlier.
Vladimir Putin and key EU leaders have met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Milan to discuss the eastern Ukraine crisis
Vladimir Putin, Petro Poroshenko and EU leaders met on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit in the northern Italian city.
The other participants in the meeting included UK Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi.
Speaking briefly after the talks, the Italian prime minister said they were constructive but big differences remained.
“I’m more positive, I hope we can work together very strongly,” he told journalists.
Petro Poroshenko met Angela Merkel ahead of Friday’s talks, with both expressing regret that many points of a peace plan agreed last month in the Belarusian capital Minsk “had not yet been implemented”, German government sources were quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
Angela Merkel also met Vladimir Putin for two-and-a-half hours late on Thursday, October 16.
Russian media quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that there were still “serious differences” between the two leaders over the origins of the crisis.
Angela Merkel said it was “first and foremost” Russia’s responsibility to make sure the peace plan was being followed.
Among other points, the plan envisages the withdrawal of heavy weaponry 10 miles by each side from the line of contact and the withdrawal of all foreign mercenaries from the conflict zone.
Earlier this week, Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of nearly 18,000 Russian troops stationed near the Ukrainian border.
However, NATO says it has seen no sign of any major Russian pullback.
Speaking ahead of the Milan talks, Vladimir Putin stressed that he would not be blackmailed by the EU and US over the Ukrainian crisis.
In what was seen as a direct reference to President Barack Obama, the Russian leader warned of “what discord between large nuclear powers can do to strategic stability”.
The two-day ASEM summit brings together more than 50 member states.
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President Barack Obama has arrived in Estonia for talks on the Ukraine crisis with Baltic leaders.
Barack Obama is due to hold talks in the capital Tallinn with the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Correspondents say the three states, which joined NATO in 2004, are worried about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
Later in the week Barack Obama will attend a NATO summit that is expected to back plans for a rapid-response force that could be dispatched within 48 hours.
NATO recently announced plans to set up the force to protect Eastern European members against possible Russian aggression.
Russia reacted by saying it would alter its military doctrine to reflect “NATO infrastructure getting closer to Russian borders”.
Meanwhile Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya announced that one of its photojournalists Andrei Stenin, missing since August 5, has been killed in eastern Ukraine. Russian officials say his remains were identified in a car that came under attack while following a refugee convoy.
Barack Obama has arrived in Estonia for talks on the Ukraine crisis with Baltic leaders (photo Al Jazeera)
The rapid-response force and other security measures will be discussed at a two-day NATO summit in Wales, which begins on September 4.
Barack Obama arrived in Tallinn early on Wednesday. He will later meet Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite and Latvia’s Andris Berzins.
According to the White House, Barack Obama would use his trip to Estonia, where about 25% are ethnic Russians, to make it clear that it is “not OK for large countries to flagrantly violate the territorial integrity of their smaller neighbors”.
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces since April. Separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Since the violence erupted, some 2,600 people have been killed and thousands more wounded.
On September 2, the UN said the conflict had forced more than a million people from their homes in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s army has seen several losses in recent days after rebels launched offensives in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and further south around the port of Mariupol.
Russia has denied accusations by the West and the Ukrainian government that it is sending troops and military equipment over the border to support the separatists.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have accused the rebels of violating a humanitarian deal reached by the two sides. They say the separatists killed as many as 100 Ukrainian troops who were evacuating the town of Ilovaysk via an agreed corridor at the weekend, but the rebels deny this.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for key talks on Ukraine in London, as a disputed referendum in Crimea looms on Sunday.
John Kerry is expected to warn Sergei Lavrov that the referendum and Russia’s military intervention in Crimea could trigger concerted US and EU sanctions.
He has warned of “very serious steps” if Russia annexes the region.
Russia insisted at the UN on Thursday it did “not want war” with Ukraine.
During an emergency meeting of the Security Council, Moscow’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin defended the right of Crimea, which is predominantly ethnic Russian, to decide whether or not to join the Russian Federation.
Russia’s military intervention followed the fall of Ukraine’s pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22.
John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov will meet at the US ambassador’s residence in central London.
It appears John Kerry will try to persuade Russia that it risks paying a heavy price in political and economic damage from American and European measures which could be triggered by Sunday’s referendum.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are preparing for key talks on Ukraine in London (photo Reuters)
“If there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here [in Washington] with respect to the options that are available to us,” he said before arriving in London on Friday.
While John Kerry seems to think the referendum itself may be all but unstoppable, he insists that it is what Russia does after that vote which counts – and Ukraine’s territorial integrity must not be permanently violated.
The talks are the last opportunity for face-to-face dialogue at such a senior level before the likely vote in Crimea, our correspondent says, which could determine whether what happens next edges Ukraine away from, or deeper into, a dangerous crisis.
John Kerry told lawmakers before his departure to London that the US was not eager to impose further sanctions on Russia.
“Our choice is not to be put in the position of having to do that. Our choice is to have a respect for the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” he said.
The secretary of state said that he had spoken again by telephone with Sergei Lavrov on Thursday ahead of their Friday meeting, and that he and his Russian counterpart had been in almost daily contact over the past two weeks.
John Kerry has hinted at a possible compromise to the crisis by which the Ukrainian parliament would allow Crimea to hold a referendum on self-determination.
“The constitution of Ukraine requires that any effort by any entity within Ukraine to secede be done through the constitutional process,” John Kerry said.
He said that at the moment Russia did not “have the assets… necessary to be able to march in and take over Ukraine”, although he conceded that could change in future.
But correspondents say that the signs are not good for Friday’s talks, as both men have clashed in recent weeks and failed to agree on a number of US proposals.
Russia has refused to recognize the interim leadership that took over in Kiev with Viktor Yanukovych’s departure or participate in a contact group aimed at bringing the two countries together for talks.
In his appearance before the UN on Thursday, Vitaly Churkin said that it was Kiev that was “splitting its country into two parts”, not Moscow.
The referendum in Crimea, he said, had come about because of a “legal vacuum” in the country, and questioned why Crimeans should not be “afforded the opportunity” to decide on their future.
Ukraine’s interim PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk told the UN Security Council that his country was a victim of Russian aggression, producing a copy of the UN Charter to make his point that Moscow was violating it and several other international treaties.
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