U.S. officials have low expectations ahead of meetings with Russia and Ukraine

Before four four-party talks in Geneva Ukrainian Foreign Minister Deshchytsia says there is still a chance to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine. (Reuters)

The Obama administration signaled little optimism ahead of diplomatic meetings Thursday with Russia and Ukraine over the escalating conflict in Eastern Europe and prepared to enact new economic sanctions designed to punish Moscow.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry arrived in Geneva on Wednesday for direct talks with his counterparts, kicking off another round of high-level engagement by U.S. officials aimed at pressuring Russian President Vladi­mir Putin to reduce tensions in the region.

President Obama will call European leaders in the coming days, and Vice President Biden is set to travel to Ukraine next week to express solidarity with the Western-leaning temporary government, White House officials said.

U.S. officials are pressing Russia to pull its troops back from the Ukrainian border, to stop fomenting unrest in the country’s east and to engage in direct talks with Ukrainian officials. So far, “it has been difficult to get a real dialogue going,” a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry said.

“Russia has a lot to say about the situation inside Ukraine, at the same time that its own behavior has been extremely destabilizing in the east,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly ahead of the meeting.


Secretary of State John Kerry is surrounded by security as he arrives in Geneva, Wednesday, where he is scheduled to participate in talks on the ongoing situation in Ukraine with representatives from Ukraine, Russia and the European Union. (Jim Bourg/AP)

At the White House, senior Obama aides tempered expectations about a potential breakthrough and reiterated that they have agreed with European allies about enacting additional economic sanctions if Russia does not help to de-escalate the situation.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, talking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Pennsylvania, where Obama spoke about the economy, emphasized that although the discussions in Geneva were important, the president believes that “talk is one thing, but action is another.”

The severity of the likely sanctions will be determined, U.S. officials said, by the outcome of the meeting between Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukraine’s acting foreign minister, Andrii Deshchytsia, as well as by the situation in Ukraine.

White House officials said their European partners are on board with the range of options that the administration is ready to act on if Moscow refuses to make concessions. The administration is reluctant to impose threatened sanctions against entire Russian economic sectors absent an invasion of Ukraine and assurances that the Europeans are on board.

But it is prepared to impose asset freezes and visa bans on additional Russian individuals and would like Europe to match those measures.

In Geneva, Kerry and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, will seek to create the conditions to allow Deshchytsia and Lavrov to “look first and foremost for ways to de-escalate the security situation, which has gotten significantly more perilous over the past 10 days,” thanks to activities that “we believe have been aided and abetted by Russian organization, Russian supplies, Russian money,” the State Department official said.

Before the four diplomats meet at lunchtime, Lavrov is expected to hold a bilateral meeting with Deshchytsia, U.S. officials said. Kerry will also hold separate sessions with each of the other participants, including his fourth meeting on Ukraine in recent weeks with Lavrov.

Neither the previous Kerry-Lavrov meetings, nor U.S. and European asset freezes and visa bans imposed against a group of Russian financiers and officials close to Putin, appear to have altered Moscow’s strategy in Ukraine or resulted in the withdrawal of about 40,000 troops Russia has massed on its side of the border with Ukraine.

DeYoung reported from Geneva.

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