By Barbara Lewis
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine will meet at ministerial level next week to discuss the Ukraine crisis, the EU said on Tuesday, offering a glimpse of possible diplomatic progress in the conflict.
The meeting will involve U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine's Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia, the EU said.
"(Ashton) continues the diplomatic efforts aiming at de-escalating the situation in Ukraine. In this context she will meet foreign ministers of the U.S., Russian Federation and Ukraine next week," a spokeswoman for Ashton said.
Further details of the meeting, which will be held at an unspecified location in Europe, are still being worked on, an EU source said.
Separately, an EU diplomat said the EU plans to set up a special support group to help Ukraine stabilize its precarious economy and political situation.
In a phone call on Monday, Kerry and Lavrov had discussed convening direct talks in the next 10 days between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union to defuse tensions, the U.S. State Department said.
The EU's confirmation of the meeting came soon after Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea.
Kerry and Lavrov held talks in Paris on March 30 about ways to defuse the crisis over Ukraine, with Kerry telling Moscow then that progress depended on a Russian troop pullback from Ukraine's borders.
The two have been seeking to hammer out the framework of a deal to reduce tensions over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
The Russian move into Crimea, following the ousting of Ukraine's pro-Russia president in February, has sparked the worst East-West confrontation since the Cold War ended two decades ago.
The EU's support group for Ukraine, whose creation is expected to be announced on Wednesday, would bring together "several dozen people" to work out priorities for the country, an EU diplomat said, asking not to be named.
"The support group will identify and coordinate with the Ukrainian authorities the necessary help and assistance they need to stabilize the economy and political situation, help with reforms etc.," the diplomat said.
The group, whose work could be extended to Georgia and Moldova, which are also seeking a closer relationship with the EU, will draw on the expertise of various EU member states and work with the international financial institutions.
Last month the International Monetary Fund announced a $14-$18 billion loan for Kiev in return for tough economic reforms that will unlock further aid from the European Union, the United States and other lenders over two years.
EU policy-makers have made tackling the Ukraine crisis top priority after Moscow last month annexed the Crimea peninsula.
Russia has dismissed Western accusations that Moscow is destabilizing Ukraine.
The Ukraine crisis began after former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to spurn an EU offer of closer trade and political relations started months of street protests that eventually led to his downfall.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft)