But even as the US suggested strongly Monday that Russia is behind the “separatists, saboteurs, and provocateurs” pressing for Ukraine’s break-up, Russia responded that instead of “finger-pointing at Russia” the Ukrainian government and its supporters should “listen to these legitimate demands” of the Ukrainian people.
The US and Russia confirmed that their top diplomats would meet soon to seek a way out of the Ukrainian crisis, but the starkly opposed interpretations of events from the two sides offer little prospect of common ground for forging a way forward.
Even as White House officials suggested Monday that Russia is behind an “escalation” of unrest in three cities in eastern Ukraine over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry announced he would meet within the next 10 days with officials from Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union in an effort to calm the deteriorating security and political environment in Ukrainian regions bordering Russia.
Following on last week’s call by President Obama for Russia to pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has amassed along the border, the White House suggested Monday it was the presence of those troops that encouraged pro-Russia demonstrators in eastern Ukraine to seize government buildings, declare “independence,” and demand a referendum to secede from Ukraine – the same scenario followed by the breakaway province of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in late March.
By Monday night Ukrainian authorities reported that special forces had retaken a government building in Donetsk seized by pro-Russia demonstrators, but they did not go on to suggest that the instability in the eastern part of the country was over.
“What’s clear is that this [weekend unrest] is a result of increased Russian pressure on Ukraine,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “We see it in the troops that have massed on the border.” The US suspects Russia is sending paid outsiders into Donetsk and other cities to feed anti-Ukraine sentiment – a suspicion the White House aired with reporters.
Any evidence of Russia moving into eastern Ukraine, “either overtly or covertly,” would be a “very serious escalation,” Mr. Carney said. Such subversive behavior would prompt the US to impose “further sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy,” he added.
Mr. Kerry relayed the warning of additional sanctions directly to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a telephone conversation Monday. Kerry told his Russian counterpart that “any further Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine will incur further costs for Russia,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Kerry told Mr. Lavrov the weekend actions in eastern Ukraine “do not appear to be a spontaneous set of events,” Ms. Psaki said, and he further called on Russia to “publicly disavow the activities of separatists, saboteurs, and provocateurs.”
The US and to a lesser extent the European Union have already imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and entities. But the two Western powers have agreed to ramp up those sanctions to cover whole sectors of the Russian economy – such as the critical energy sector, and finance and banking – in response to any move by Russia into eastern Ukraine.
With the US threatening additional sanctions and Ukrainian officials accusing Moscow of following a strategy designed to “divide and destroy” Ukraine, Russia’s response seemed designed to appear calm and measured.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov told Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya in a phone call Monday that Ukraine must avoid using force against pro-Russia demonstrators. “Enough finger pointing at Russia,” the Russian ministry said, adding, “It’s time to listen to these legitimate demands.”
In his conversation with Kerry, Lavrov suggested some of the conditions Russia will set for Ukraine, according to a ministry statement. Those include a national dialogue “with the full-scale participation of all political forces and regions” on creation of a federal governing structure, and “formalization of [Ukraine’s] non-aligned status.”
Neither “condition” is likely to sit well with the pro-Western interim government in Kiev that replaced the ousted government of pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovich, who fled the country after scores of protesters were killed by security forces in pro-Europe demonstrations.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk charged Russia with fomenting the weekend uprisings as part of an “anti-Ukrainian plan” to ultimately seize more Ukrainian territory.
Ukraine is planning to hold national elections in late May, but the interim government has already signed an association agreement with the European Union and last week agreed to closer cooperation with NATO meant to boost NATO training of the Ukrainian military and Ukrainian participation in some NATO exercises.