LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
The stage is set today for what could be a very tense meeting in Paris between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
WERTHEIMER: Kerry has been calling on Russia to end its aggression against Ukraine, and the U.S. is threatening sanctions if Russia does not pull back. But the Kremlin has strengthened its hold on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, where Russia's Black Sea Naval Fleet is based.
GREENE: And Kerry and other Western diplomats are worried Russia might try to go further.
NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Kerry, who paid an emotional visit to Ukraine's capital before traveling to Paris with Ukraine's new foreign minister in tow.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The smell of burning tires still hangs in the air on the Kiev street, where snipers killed dozens of protesters in late February. Kerry says it was a moving visit for him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: It was really quite remarkable - I have to tell you - to see the barricades, see the tires, see the barbed wire, see the bullet holes in street lamps.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
KELEMEN: We are poor people, this woman told Kerry, complaining about the corruption in Ukraine, and pleading for help so that the country can move on. Kerry says the U.S. will stand with Ukraine, and he says wanted to set the record straight about what's happening there. He turned to others in the crowd, asking them about Russia's allegations that Ukraine's new leaders are undermining the rights of ethnic Russians.
KERRY: And what do you think about the things that President Putin is saying about the dangers to Russian-speaking people?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We don't have any threats. We don't.
KERRY: No threats.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are very tolerant. We are peaceful people. They are making it up. That's not true.
KELEMEN: That message was reinforced by religious leaders, including a rabbi who brushes off Russia's claims about fascists and nationalists in the new Ukrainian government.
Alexander Dukhovny, the chief reform Rabbi of Ukraine, says this revolution was about restoring dignity.
RABBI ALEXANDER DUKHOVNY: Many people are saying there's a lot of anti-Semites and nationalists, fascists. I think there are, but those who are provocateurs. They don't want us to build us a society.
KELEMEN: And he blames Russia for that. Rabbi Dukhovny says he told Kerry that most Ukrainians want a democratic future.
DUKHOVNY: I just recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who exactly 200 years ago said that I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. So, looking forward, we can build a future democracy and justice and kindness in Ukraine only when we are together.
KELEMEN: At the moment, though, Ukraine seems to be breaking apart. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who blames the West for effectively promoting a coup in Kiev, says he reserves the right to protect Russian citizens in the country, and not only in Crimea.
Kerry says Russia is running out of excuses and hiding behind falsehoods.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
KERRY: It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.
KELEMEN: He says the U.S. understands Russia has historic links to Crimea, but there are better ways to deal with issues like this, with international human rights monitors and observers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
KERRY: Those things can continue and be worked out through the legal process, through the direct relationship with the government of Ukraine. It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun, dictate what you are trying to achieve.
KELEMEN: So far, Kerry seems to be having a tough time persuading Russia to take this diplomatic off ramp, as U.S. officials like to call it, but he is going to give it a try again today. He even let Ukraine's new foreign minister hitch a ride with him to Paris where Kerry is to meet, among others, Russia's foreign minister.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.