Why Vice President Biden is visiting embattled Ukraine now

Vice President Joe Biden's two-day visit aims to signal support for Ukraine's democracy, while nudging the Russians to help de-escalate the crisis with the threat of energy sanctions.

Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden waves as he arrives at Borispol airport outside Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. The vice president launched a high-profile, two-day visit to demonstrate US commitment to Ukraine and to send a high-level signal of support for reform efforts the new Ukrainian government is pushing.

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Kiev Monday for a two-day show of support for Ukraine’s pro-Western government as the Obama administration weighs whether to impose additional, broader sanctions on Russia over its actions in support of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Prospects for Ukraine’s stability – as well as for US-Russia relations – appear to be dimming. The Ukraine crisis shows no signs of easing, despite an international de-escalation accord reached last week, and many analysts consider some kind of armed confrontation, if not a full-blown civil war, to be increasingly likely.

Mr. Biden, who is playing an increasingly active role in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, was set to meet with senior Ukrainian officials and pro-government activists, while trying to find ways to reduce tensions with Russia. But at the same time, aides traveling with the vice president suggest that sanctions on sectors of Russia’s economy, including the all-important energy sector, could come as early as this week.

Biden’s trip aims to show US support for “Ukraine’s democracy, unity, and territorial integrity,” an administration official traveling with the vice president told reporters. At the same time, Biden will be signaling that “there will be mounting costs for Russia if they choose a destabilizing rather than constructive course in the days ahead,” the official said.

Last week President Obama said Russia faces tougher sanctions and increased international isolation if it does not act quickly to halt its support for pro-Russia “provocateurs” in eastern Ukraine and pull its troops back from the Russia-Ukraine border.

But Russia shows no signs of doing either – instead suggesting that it is the government in Kiev that is illegitimate and at the root of Ukraine’s troubles.

“Not a single step has been taken by those who have seized power in Kiev to eliminate the reasons for this deep crisis inside Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a Moscow news conference Monday.

Mr. Lavrov, who was on hand in Geneva last week as Russia, the US, the European Union, and Ukraine reached an accord designed to defuse the Ukrainian crisis, also appeared to have a message for Mr. Obama and the members of Congress who are pushing him to punish Russia with a new round of far-reaching sanctions: It won’t work.

“Before giving us ultimatums, demanding that we fulfill demands within two or three days with the threat of sanctions, we would urgently call on our American partners to fully accept responsibility for those who they brought to power” in Kiev, Lavrov said.

“Attempts to isolate Russia have absolutely no future, because isolating Russia from the rest of the world is impossible,” Lavrov added, describing Russia as “a big, independent power that knows what it wants.”

Russia does not recognize the government in Kiev that replaced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, who fled the country in February in the wake of pro-Western protests that had turned violent.

Russia sought to turn the tables on those laying the blame for Ukraine’s turmoil on Russia, with Lavrov blasting Ukrainian authorities for “not lifting one finger” to restrain violence in southeastern Ukraine or to reduce tensions with pro-independence protesters in largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

At least three people were killed in a shooting at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine Sunday. The government blamed protesters who have seized government buildings in a dozen eastern cities for the violence, while the pro-Russian groups instigating the seizures said Ukraine’s far-right political forces were behind the attack.

Russia has for weeks blamed Ukraine’s crisis on what it says are far-right and “fascist” forces in the country, and it continues to maintain a right to move into eastern Ukraine if necessary to protect the pro-Russia population it says is under attack.

Lavrov’s comments suggest to some regional analysts that a push by Russian forces into eastern Ukraine may be imminent – although others point out that Russia has been threatening action for weeks and may prefer to keep Ukraine and in particular its pro-Western leaders on edge and fearful of a military incursion.

A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling on Obama not to wait for Russian military action but to impose the threatened additional sanctions – potentially on energy, mining, and financial interests – in response to activity many say is aimed at destabilizing Ukraine and derailing its march toward closer association with the European Union.

On Sunday, two US senators – a Republican and a Democratic member of the Foreign Relations Committee – called on Obama to move beyond the steps the administration has already taken against some Russian individuals and one bank after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea province.

Sens. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee and Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut said on NBC’s "Meet the Press" that the US should impose sanctions on Russia’s energy and banking sectors.

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