A Washington-brokered deal to ease tensions in Ukraine faltered Monday as pro-Russia gunmen refused to leave government buildings in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s foreign minister accused Kiev of allowing anti-Moscow extremists to run rampant.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden arrived in the Ukrainian capital with a bipartisan delegation of U.S. lawmakers to show support for struggling pro-Western leaders and to push a strategy that U.S. officials hope might ween the nation off Russian natural gas. Mr. Biden is the highest-ranking American official to visit Kiev since the crisis began.
Obama administration officials said Mr. Biden would deliver a message of “national unity” during meetings Tuesday with leaders of the pro-Western interim government.
A key focus of the visit, however, will be a strategy of “reverse flow,” essentially an attempt by Washington to get natural gas pumping into Ukraine from the West rather than from Russia.
One senior administration official said a U.S. team was on the ground to determine whether reverse flow could work to Ukraine’s advantage. The team, the official said, will travel to Slovakia, Poland and Hungary to “help address the issue of reversing the flow of natural gas to provide Ukraine with some measure of short-term supply of natural gas as they look to replenish their stores.”
The strategy is likely to fuel anger in Moscow, whose economic leverage in neighboring Ukraine has long been rooted in Kiev’s dependence on Russian gas.
Leaders of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly, said in recent weeks that pumping gas from European Union nations into Ukraine is illegal if not physically impossible.
Obama administration officials said Mr. Biden also plans to encourage Ukrainian leaders to implement a Geneva Agreement that Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped broker over the weekend between Russia and Ukraine to prevent a full-blown civil war in Ukraine.
The agreement, reached after an exhaustive round of talks in Switzerland, called for Kiev and Moscow to persuade all illegally armed groups operating in Ukraine to lay down their weapons. It also called for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine to cede control of several government buildings they have been occupying for two weeks.
Despite the deal, pro-Russia separatists showed no signs of budging from their positions, including in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city. The separatists have declared an independent “people’s republic” in the city and appointed themselves to government posts.
Their ultimate goal is to secede from Ukraine, be effectively annexed into Russia or simply achieve a kind of heightened autonomy from Kiev and its Western-leading government.
Washington’s attempts to ease tensions have been hampered by the outbreak of fresh violence in the east.
Three people reportedly were killed Sunday in a clash between pro- and anti-Russian groups in the city of Slavyansk, just north of Donetsk.
Russian leaders were quick to blame the violence on Kiev, saying the government was failing to keep its promise to rein in extremist and Ukrainian nationalist groups in the region.
“Extremists are calling the tune,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, according to the BBC.
Mr. Lavrov’s message was bolstered by pro-Russia separatists who told Reuters on Monday that they would not disarm before a Ukrainian nationalist group known as Right Sector moves to lay down its arms. “Who should surrender weapons first? Let us see Right Sector disarm first, let them make the first step and we will follow,” said Yevgeny Gordik, a member of a separatist militia.
Government officials in Kiev say it is the pro-Russia groups that are fomenting the violence.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Sunday that gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a military checkpoint between Donetsk and Slavyansk and that Ukrainian troops responded by firing back. One of the attackers was wounded and two others were captured.
Obama administration officials traveling with Mr. Biden said details of the violence were murky.
“We don’t have 100 percent of the facts,” one senior administration said, blaming in part the pro-Russia separatists who have blocked international observers from the area.
With an estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern border, the White House has suggested for weeks that Russian military interlocutors were fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The State Department on Monday endorsed a series of photographs that have circulated through the Western media in recent days. The photos showed what appear to be Russian military forces among the militants in eastern Ukraine. According to a report by The New York Times, some of the men had been identified in other photos clearly taken among Russian military troops in other settings, including during the Russian military incursion into Georgia in 2008.
The Obama administration warned Monday that more “costs” will be imposed on Russia if Moscow continues to undermine stability in Ukraine. The administration imposed economic sanctions on a number of high-ranking Russian officials.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki suggested a decision on whether to impose deeper sanctions, potentially targeting Russia’s energy and banking sectors, could be imminent.
“Obviously, we haven’t held back from putting sanctions in place. We are prepared to put more sanctions in place, including on individuals and on sectors,” Ms. Psaki said. “If the situation warrants it, we won’t hesitate to do that.”
Gregory Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told reporters in Kiev that it was too early to determine whether the Geneva deal would hold. “The ball is really in Moscow’s court in terms of whether they’re going to take this diplomatic off-ramp,” he said.
The ambassador said the Obama administration would make a decision on whether the agreement is working in “days, not weeks.”
Others are calling for a more forceful approach. Former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole said Washington should send weapons, including tanks, to help Ukraine resist Russia’s moves and send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin.