Just hours ahead of his scheduled meeting in Paris with Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated Russia's widely mocked claim that the pro-Russian "self-defense" forces who have seized Crimea are not under Russian command.

"If you mean the self-defense units created by the inhabitants of Crimea, we give them no orders, they take no orders from us," Lavrov said, according to Reuters. "As for the military personnel of the (Russian) Black Sea Fleet, they are in their deployment sites. Yes, additional vigilance measures were taken to safeguard the sites... We will do everything not to allow any bloodshed."

Later today, Lavrov will meet in Paris with Kerry, along with French President Francois Hollande and the foreign minsters from Germany, Britain and France. Russian and NATO will similar discussions in Brussels. From Reuters:

The West is pushing for Russia to return troops to barracks, accept international monitors in Crimea and Ukraine and negotiate a solution to the crisis through a "contact group" probably under the auspices of a pan-European security body.

France said European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday could decide on sanctions against Russia if there is no "de-escalation" by then. Other EU countries, including Germany, are more reticent about sanctions.

"If we cannot make progress on that course there will be costs and consequences," UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC. "It will be a test this afternoon of whether Russia is prepared to sit down with Ukraine."

Meanwhile, the European Union is set to offer Ukraine a aid package that could be worth as much as $15 billion over the next two years. From the New York Times:

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the union's executive arm, said Wednesday that the offer includes 1.6 billion euros, or about $2.2 billion, in loans and €1.4 billion euros in grants from the union, as well as €3 billion in fresh credit from the European Investment Bank.

The aid will buttress the $1 billion in loan guarantees that Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to Ukraine while visiting Kiev on Tuesday. The economic lifeline is expected to help Ukraine's embattled interim government amid spiraling debts and the threat of rising Russian gas prices. The funds will also help cushion the blow as the International Monetary Fund is expected to demand tough austerity measures as a condition of its own expected aid package.

Ukraine's interim government has said it will need at least $35 billion in assistance over the next two years.

[Image via AP]