- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Vice President Joseph R. Biden delivered a stern warning to Russia during a Tuesday visit to Kiev in which he promised Ukraine millions of dollars in additional aid. But within hours of his departure, Ukrainian accusations of torture by pro-Russia forces further dimmed prospects for peace.

Ukraine’s interim government, which met with Mr. Biden, said insurgents loyal to Moscow kidnapped and tortured two Ukrainians, including a member of the Slovyansk city council. Leaders in Kiev also said one of their military aircraft was hit by gunfire, and pro-Russia forces — whom one top Ukrainian official dubbed “gangsters” — continued to occupy government buildings in eastern Ukraine.

The aggressive moves led Ukrainian leaders to order their security forces to restart counterterrorism operations, and Ukraine’s top security official told reporters that his service was holding Russian military provocateurs as prisoners in Kiev.

The standoff has escalated despite last week’s peace agreement between the two sides, which is now in danger of falling apart.

Standing alongside Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Mr. Biden implored Moscow to step back or risk further punishment from the U.S. and its allies.

“We’ve heard a lot from Russian officials in the past few days, but now it’s time for Russia to stop talking and start acting. Act on the commitment that they made — to get pro-Russian separatists to vacate buildings and checkpoints, accept amnesty and address their grievances politically,” he said.

“We need to see these kind of concrete steps. We need to see them without delay. We will not allow this to become an open-ended process. Time is short in which to make progress,” he said.

The vice president said the U.S. and its allies will never recognize the Russian-backed secession vote last month on Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula.

In a phone call Tuesday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Secretary of State John F. Kerry similarly implored the Kremlin to “de-escalate” the crisis and warned of more sanctions.

He urged Russia to “tone down escalatory rhetoric, engage diplomatically in the east with [the Europeans] and Ukrainian government, and issue public statements calling for those occupying buildings to disarm and stand down in exchange for amnesty,” a senior State Department official told reporters in Washington on the condition of anonymity.

The White House reiterated that Russia has days, not weeks, to change its course of action or face another round of economic sanctions. The administration already has targeted and frozen the assets of top Russian officials, including some in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and a Russian bank.

On a parallel track, the U.S. has offered aid to Ukraine. In Kiev, Mr. Biden announced another $50 million, including money to help run fair and safe elections May 25 and to help Ukraine begin to break its dependence on Russian natural gas.

The White House also will give $8 million in nonlethal aid to Ukraine’s military, including communications gear and vehicles.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that it would send about 600 troops to Eastern Europe to reassure allies that the U.S. will not allow Russia to once again dominate the region.

Army companies will conduct exercises in Poland starting Wednesday and then next week in the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. All four countries are members of NATO, whose charter declares that an attack on one member is an attack on all. The Defense Department said it intends to keep a “rotational presence persistent throughout the rest of this year.”

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said the Obama administration has projected weakness during the crisis and given Russian President Vladimir Putin an opening to sow chaos in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. McCain, a leading critic of the tack the White House has taken on Ukraine, said Mr. Biden’s tough talk will carry no weight with Moscow.

“Or else what? Or else what? What is the vice president saying, if they continue to do this, what will we do?” Mr. McCain said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.

He repeated his call to provide Ukraine with light military weapons as a sign of strength, though the White House has not embraced the idea of “lethal” aid.

While U.S. lawmakers took aim at the administration, the war of words continued in Moscow and Kiev.

Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Ukraine’s State Security Service, said Russia’s military intelligence agency had spent years building covert networks in Ukraine that its officers are now using to help seize cities such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk north of the major eastern city of Donetsk.

Russian military officers are the “main provocateurs and main organizers” of the unrest, Mr. Nalyvaichenko said in a Web briefing organized by the Atlantic Council. “We, for sure, know who they are. [The Russian officers] are very dangerous, well-armed, for years before prepared to do what they are doing now,” he said.

Mr. Nalyvaichenko said Ukrainian authorities have detained 21 members of the Russian military intelligence service network, including three GRU officers who are being held in Kiev. Up to 30 Russian GRU officers are working in the Slovyansk district and “hundreds and hundreds” of their agents are behind the unrest in eastern Ukraine, he said.

After Mr. Biden’s visit, Mr. Lavrov said the U.S. bears some blame for the crisis.

“Before putting forth ultimatums to us, demanding fulfillment of something within two, three days or otherwise be threatened with sanctions, we would urgently call on our American partners to fully recognize responsibility for those whom they brought to power and whom they are trying to shield, closing their eyes to the outrages created by this regime and by the fighters on whom this regime leans,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

Mr. Yatsenyuk, who visited Washington last month and met with President Obama, urged Russian leaders once again to abide by the peace agreement.

“We believe that in this century and in the modern world, no country should be allowed to behave like an armed bandit,” he said. “Russia should stick to its international commitments and obligations. We are not asking anything from Russia. What we demand from them is one thing. … They should deliver on the international commitments, and they should not behave as gangsters in the modern century.”

In a further sign that Mr. Putin may be cracking down on critics in Russia — he has dubbed them “national traitors” — a Moscow judge fined opposition leader Alexei Navalny for slandering an obscure lawmaker by using Twitter to call him a drug addict.

Prosecutors are expected to call for Mr. Navalny’s incarceration. They said the verdict Tuesday made Mr. Navalny, who is already under house arrest, a repeat offender and parole violator.

• Ashish Kumar Sen contributed to this report.

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