- - Friday, March 21, 2014

Susan Rice, national security adviser to President Barack Obama, said on Friday that the administration still believes there is a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine as Russian troops mobilized along the country’s entire eastern border.

CBS News reported on Friday that a mass mobilization of Russian forces was taking place on Ukraine’s eastern border with at least twice as many troops as the 20,000 number originally reported. The defense “exercise” included tanks and tactical aircraft and appeared to show signs of a logistical buildup required for a sustained operation.

Obama on Thursday announced additional sanctions against Kremlin officials and oligarchs linked to President Vladimir Putin in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in southeastern Ukraine. The president said more sweeping measures could also be taken against vital sectors of the Russian economy, including the oil and natural gas industries, if Russia’s provocations continue.

Crimea voted to secede from Ukraine in a referendum on Sunday that was widely condemned by the international community as illegitimate and coerced by the presence of Russian troops on the peninsula.

Rice said administration officials are watching the supposed military exercises with “skepticism” that they were just exercises and not preparations for an invasion. However, she said there were no plans to meet the Ukrainian government’s request for military equipment.

Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who visited Ukraine recently, have urged the administration to approve the interim government’s “urgent requests” for weapons and other equipment for Ukraine’s military, which only has a few thousand combat troops.

“Our view is that this situation can and should be de-escalated,” Rice said at a White House press briefing. “It should be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy. We still believe it can be, if that choice is the choice that the Russian Federation makes.”

She reiterated that Russia would face “further costs” for a military intervention in eastern Ukraine.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a phone call on Thursday that Russian forces had no intention of invading Ukraine.

“It’s an exercise only, no intention of crossing the border into Ukraine, not going to take any aggressive action,” said Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby. “That was Minister Shoigu’s words, and Secretary Hagel’s expectation is that he will live up to those words.”

Obama will attend a meeting of the G-7 nations, excluding Russia, on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in the Netherlands early next week. He is also scheduled to meet with European Union and NATO officials to discuss their collective response to the Ukraine crisis.

The State Department issued a travel warning on Friday urging U.S. citizens “to defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine and to defer all travel to the Crimean Peninsula and eastern regions of Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk due to the presence of Russian military forces in the Crimean Peninsula, and in Russia near the Ukrainian border.”

Rice laughed when a reporter asked if the Ukraine crisis was “prompting a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-Russian relations?”

“In the years since the ending of the Cold War, the United States and Europe and, indeed, the international community has proceeded along a path where we’ve made clear that our interest was in more fully integrating Russia politically and economically into Europe and into, indeed, the fabric of the international system and the global economy,” she said. “But that was predicated on an expectation that Russia would play by the rules of the road.”

“What we have seen in Ukraine is obviously a very egregious departure from that.”

Daniel Wiser is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice. His email address is wiser@freebeacon.com.

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