Secretary of State John Kerry is surrounded by security as he arrives April 16 in Geneva, 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)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing to ratchet up sanctions on Russia and boost assistance for the Ukrainian military in the coming days, U.S. officials said Wednesday, as Ukraine struggles to contain a pro-Russian uprising in its eastern cities.
Officials said they had no plans to levy new sanctions ahead of Thursday’s talks in Geneva between the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. But with low expectations for a breakthrough in those meetings, officials already have prepared targets for sanctions that include wealthy individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the entities they run.
The administration also was working on a package of non-lethal assistance for Ukraine’s military. The assistance, which was expected to be finalized this week, could include medical supplies and clothing for Ukraine’s military, but was expected to stop short of providing body armor and other military-style equipment.
Ukraine has asked for military assistance from the U.S., a request that was believed to include lethal aid like weapons and ammunition. But Obama administration officials said they were not actively considering supplying Ukraine with lethal assistance, a step they said could be viewed as an escalatory act by the U.S. in the midst of an already tense situation.
“We don’t want to see more escalation. What we want is de-escalation,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday. “At the same time we’re constantly reviewing Ukrainian request for assistance and determining what’s most appropriate to provide.”
Administration critics have been pressing Obama to arm the Ukrainian military in order to bolster its efforts to reassert control of its eastern region from pro-Russian insurgents who have seized numerous government facilities.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said over the weekend that the least the U.S. could do was “give them some light weapons with which to defend themselves.”
U.S. assistance to Ukraine’s military so far has been limited to about 300,000 ready-to-eat meals, which were shipped in late March. The U.S. also has authorized a $1 billion loan guarantee for Ukraine’s fledgling government.
Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva on Wednesday for the high-stakes diplomatic meetings with Russia, Ukraine and the EU. A U.S. official said Ukrainian diplomats planned to brief Russia’s foreign minister about efforts to decentralize power in Ukraine and protect Russian-speaking minorities like the ones living in eastern Ukraine.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the U.S. response to Russia’s actions by name.
Ukraine’s military launched its first actions against the pro-Russian forces on Tuesday. But just a day later the central government’s hopes of re-establishing control of the restive east were dampened when the insurgents commandeered six Ukrainian armored vehicles along with their crews and hoisted Russian flags over them.
The Ukrainian soldiers manning the vehicles offered no armed resistance, and masked pro-Russian militias in combat fatigues sat on top as they drove into the eastern city of Slovyansk, a hotbed of unrest against Ukraine’s interim government.
The West is also warily watching the 40,000 Russian troops massed on its border with Ukraine. U.S. officials say they believe Putin has put the troops there to give him the option to invade, but has not yet made a decision on his next move.
Officials said a full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine would result in broad U.S. and European sanctions on key Russian economic sectors, including its powerful energy industry. While some congressional Republicans have called for the administration to use those more robust penalties now to serve as a deterrent against a full-scale Russian incursion, administration officials say they see the mere threat of the economic sanctions as enough to keep Putin from pressing into eastern Ukraine.
The sanctions that could be levied in the aftermath of the Geneva meeting were expected to focus on Putin’s close associates, including oligarchs who control much of Russia’s wealth, as well as businesses and other entities they control. It was unclear whether those sanctions would change Putin’s calculus given that the U.S. and the Europeans already have launched targeted sanctions on people in Putin’s inner circle.
The U.S. was also seeking to take more public steps to show its support for Ukraine’s central government ahead of elections on May 25. Vice President Joe Biden will visit the capital of Kiev next week. And CIA Director John Brennan met with officials there over the weekend, a secret trip that was quickly revealed by Russian media who cast the visit as evidence that the U.S. was behind Ukraine’s decision to take action against the pro-Russian forces in the east.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.