The U.S. and its European allies ratcheted up the threat of economic sanctions and visa restrictions on Russia on Thursday if Moscow continues to escalate the crisis in Ukraine — as thousands of Russian troops conducted military maneuvers near the Ukrainian border.
Despite the tough talk, however, the Obama administration continued to push for an 11th-hour diplomatic solution to the crisis. Secretary of State John F. Kerry was scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London on Friday in an attempt to de-escalate the tensions that threaten to ignite a new Cold War between Moscow and Washington.
The tensions have heightened since Russian troops took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after the pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the Ukrainian capital of Kiev late last month amid massive anti-government protests.
With a regional parliament in the Crimea appearing likely to pass a referendum on Sunday that would pave the way for the peninsula to secede from the rest of Ukraine and become part of Russia, the prospects for Mr. Kerry’s meeting with Mr. Lavrov being a success appear dim.
Russia continued Thursday to conduct military exercises near the Ukrainian border. And in Moscow, the Russian Defense Ministry said it will continue the exercises at least until the end of this month — an announcement that escalated fears in Washington that Russia may seriously be considering a deeper military push into eastern Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, appeared eager on Thursday to suggest the developments in Crimea were occurring independent of Russian influence, saying that they were only part of Ukraine’s “internal crisis.”
In a foreshadowing of the tense atmosphere expected at Friday’s Kerry-Lavrov meeting in London, Mr. Kerry warned Mr. Lavrov in a brief phone call Thursday that “there will be costs if Russia continues to take escalatory steps,” a senior State Department official said.
Mr. Kerry repeated his warning to Moscow in remarks to a congressional panel on Thursday.
“There will be a response of some kind [to] the referendum itself, and in addition, if there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here,” Mr. Kerry told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee.
President Obama earlier this month issued an executive order on sanctions and visa bans against Russians involved in the intervention in Ukraine.
In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told parliament that the European Union and other Western nations would freeze Russians’ bank accounts and implement travel restrictions.
“If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, that will not only be a great catastrophe for Ukraine,” Mrs. Merkel said in the nationally televised address reported by The Associated Press. “It will cause massive damage to Russia, both economically and politically.”
In New York, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk condemned Russia’s “military aggression” against his country, but told the U.N. Security Council he doesn’t think Moscow wants a war.
Mr. Obama met Mr. Yatsenyuk at the White House on Wednesday. Russia does not recognize the interim leaders in Kiev.
Mr. Putin, meanwhile, told a meeting of an advisory council of top Russian defense and security officials that Russia had “regrettably” been drawn into the events in Ukraine.
“We can’t ignore the developments around Ukraine, Crimea and everything related to that uneasy problem, which, I want to underline, has emerged through no fault of ours,” he said, according to The AP.
Western officials say the planned referendum in the Crimean Peninsula is a violation of international law and the Ukrainian Constitution.
“I don’t think anybody can believe that a hastily put together, rushed referendum taking place under the imprint of 20,000-plus troops and all that has happened without debate, without opportunity is a genuine referendum,” Mr. Kerry told the Senate panel.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, wondered what would happen if Russia starts to foment unrest in the ethnic Russian eastern part of Ukraine.
Mr. Putin has warned that he reserves the right to “use all means” to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine if they ask Moscow for help.
Mr. Kerry said the U.S. is closely watching the movement of Russian troops and can make the “judgment at this point that they don’t have the assets in the places necessary to be able to, say, march in and take over all of Ukraine.”
“But that could change very quickly and we recognize that,” he added.