President Obama’s top national security advisers Tuesday were considering the possibility of new sanctions against Russia amid reports of armed skirmishes in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
“We are actively looking at our options,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Officials said any additional U.S. action was unlikely before a diplomatic gathering Thursday in Geneva, where Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union.
The Geneva meeting, said State Department spokesman Jen Psaki, “is likely the next step here, because it’s an opportunity for everybody to sit down at the table and have a discussion. At the same time, we can make preparations for any additional sanction steps we want to take.”
Obama signed an executive order last month that would permit restrictions on financial dealings and licensing agreements with Russia’s principal economic sectors, including energy and mining. Officials said the additional sanctions now under consideration probably would not go that far and that broader measures are being held in reserve to respond to any move by Russian troops to cross Ukraine’s eastern border.
Although the United States and its allies have called repeatedly on Russia to negotiate directly with Ukraine’s interim government, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has held only one brief meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, Andrii Deshchytsia, since the crisis began in late February. Psaki made clear Tuesday that the administration sees the main goal of the Geneva meeting as putting Lavrov and Deshchytsia in the same room for a substantive discussion.
“This is really the first opportunity to engage with them at the same table, with the E.U., with the United States, to talk about priorities, including de-escalation, demobilization, support for efforts moving forward, including constitutional reform, protecting minorities,” Psaki said. “These are priorities that even the Russians have said they support.”
Kerry spent Tuesday morning in telephone consultations on Ukraine with his French, German and British counterparts.
At the White House, Carney again ruled out any U.S. military intervention, as well as any lethal military assistance to Ukraine. He said the administration was still considering Ukrainian requests for non-lethal aid, which includes night-vision equipment and uniforms.
“We are obviously evaluating requests and looking at ways that we can support the Ukrainian government,” Carney said. “But our focus is on continuing to put pressure on Russia so that it understands that the international community is united when it comes to support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He emphasized the importance of Thursday’s diplomatic session as an opportunity “to see whether or not there is the potential, anyway, for moving forward on a diplomatic resolution and de-escalation.”
The administration also continued efforts to coordinate with European allies, which have been less eager to adopt widespread sanctions that would have a significant effect on their economies.
As the allies moved to shore up Ukraine’s economy, German energy giant RWE said it would “restart” gas deliveries to Ukraine’s Naftogaz though a pipeline that runs through Poland. Although RWE has supplied gas to Ukraine under a five-year contract, the announcement, which forecast a 10-fold increase in such gas shipments, seemed timed to show support for Ukraine.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with E.U. defense chiefs in Luxembourg to brief them on alliance measures to “further strengthen collective defense at sea, in the air, on land” and reassure member nations that border Russia or Ukraine.
The measures, Rasmussen said, “will follow three tracks: re-enforced defense plans, enhanced exercises and appropriate deployments.” NATO, primarily with U.S. resources, has already beefed up a regular air patrol over the Baltic nations and sent additional F-16 fighter jets to Poland.
Carney repeated U.S. praise for Ukrainian military restraint and said that “we appreciate the government’s statements” that any action it takes in response to the seizure of local administrative buildings by pro-Russian separatists in eastern cities “will be gradual and responsible.
“That said, the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond,” Carney said. “The best way to de-escalate this situation is for the armed militants to leave the buildings they have seized.”