The Western-backed interim government in Kiev struggled to control mobs of pro-Moscow demonstrators in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, as congressional Republicans pressed the Obama administration to take more robust action to deter a Russian military invasion of the nation.
While Ukrainian authorities succeeded in retaking control of a key government building in one city near the border with Russia, they had less success elsewhere. U.S. officials believe Moscow is paying the protesters to foment unrest.
The White House has moved in recent weeks to beef up U.S. military support for NATO allies bordering Ukraine. But with fears mounting that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be keen to advance on eastern Ukraine, some are calling for the Obama administration to begin directly arming Ukrainian forces.
“The reason we heard from this administration they weren’t willing to provide arms is we thought it would create a provocation. Well, [Mr. Putin] doesn’t need provocation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said Tuesday.
Mr. Johnson, who traveled to Ukraine as part of a congressional delegation last month, said he could “sense the disappointment” among pro-Western leaders in Kiev that Washington “wasn’t even willing to offer small arms and ammunition to support the courageous people of Ukraine.”
Republicans offered a scathing critique of Mr. Obama’s handling of the Ukraine standoff at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a former chairman of the panel.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told Mr. Kerry that the administration’s “lack of response” may be encouraging Mr. Putin to engineer a repeat of last month’s virtual annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by quietly aiding loyalists in the Russian-oriented cities of eastern Ukraine and then demanding that restless regions be allowed “autonomy” from Kiev.
“I want to know, and I think the American people should know, and maybe most importantly, the people of Ukraine should know, why won’t we give them some defensive weapons when they’re facing another invasion — not the first, but another invasion of their country?” Mr. McCain said.
“My hero, Teddy Roosevelt, used to say, ‘Talk softly but carry a big stick.’ What you’re doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small stick — in fact, a twig,” Mr. McCain told Mr. Kerry.
The secretary of state said the Obama administration is all too aware that Russia may be on the verge of invasion and reiterated a White House claim made Monday that Moscow is paying pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine.
“What we see from Russia is an illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary,” he said.
Mr. Kerry, bristling at times at the Republican onslaught, argued that it was unrealistic to think direct U.S. military assistance to Ukraine had any chance of quickly reversing Mr. Putin’s calculations.
“If we decided today to give them a whole bunch of assistance, you’ve got to train them, you’ve got to do things,” said Mr. Kerry.
He said the White House believes the most effective way to counter Russian meddling in Ukraine is through economic sanctions.
The White House and the European Union have imposed visa restrictions and sanctions on more than a dozen Russian political and business leaders in response to last month’s developments in Crimea.
If Russia does not back down now, Mr. Kerry said, tougher sanctions may be leveled against the Russian energy, banking and mining sectors. The U.S. and its European allies, he said, “will not hesitate to use 21st-century tools to hold Russia accountable for 19th-century behavior.”
Weapons still available, he said, are sanctions aimed at key sectors of the Russian economy.
“If the deterrence you’re looking for is going to have an impact, the greatest deterrence will come from Putin’s recognition of his own vulnerabilities and his recognition that if we bring sector sanctions, Russia is going to really hurt,” he said.
Unrest in the east
Mr. Putin said during a speech in Moscow last month that he has no desire to invade Ukraine, but he and other Kremlin officials have warned that they could intervene more deeply to protect ethnic Russians living in eastern Ukraine.
The Obama administration accuses Russia of fomenting unrest in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and Mariupol. Mr. Kerry said Russian special forces and paid operatives have been “the catalysts behind the chaos.”
Ukrainian troops Tuesday expelled pro-Russian demonstrators from a government building in Kharkiv, the nation’s second-largest city, roughly 20 miles from Ukrainian-Russian border.
But the Ukrainian Security Service said in a statement that unknown separatists with weapons and explosives were threatening hostages inside a security service branch in the city of Luhansk.
Reports about the hostage situation were conflicting. One report said the activists, who have controlled the building since storming it Sunday, denied taking hostages or having explosives, but claimed to have seized only an armory full of automatic rifles.
In Donetsk, pro-Russian demonstrators were digging in for a third day and declaring their own parallel government at a regional administration building.
Serhiy Taruta, the governor of Donetsk, scoffed at the shifting events. “I call this a theater of the absurd,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “It is just artists performing, but the main thing is that there is an ever-dwindling audience.”
All three cities are in Ukraine’s east, which has deep suspicion of the interim government that took power in February after the ouster of Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. While Ukraine’s interim authorities have established a measure of control, festering discontent threatens to undermine plans to hold a May 25 presidential election.
Despite the meltdown in U.S.-Russian relations over Ukraine, Mr. Kerry told lawmakers that he remains in regular contact with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and stressed that there may be a diplomatic opening in the fact that Moscow has agreed to engage in multiparty talks with the interim government in Kiev.
State Department officials said Mr. Kerry spoke with Mr. Lavrov on Monday and that the two agreed to meet with European and Ukrainian officials in Europe next week.
“It is not, in our judgment, a small matter that Russia has agreed to sit with Ukraine at the table in an effort to try to forge a road ahead,” Mr. Kerry said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.