U.S., allies increase pressure on Russia
With little movement reported on the ground in Crimea, the autonomous Ukrainian region where Russian troops have taken control, attention focused on a chaotic day of diplomatic meetings in Europe.
Secretary of State John Kerry held his first direct meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, since street protests in the Ukrainian capital turned deadly last month and led to the ouster of Kiev's pro-Russia government. No progress was reported after the session, held at the home of Russia's ambassador to France, but Kerry and Lavrov agreed to keep talking.
Kerry cautioned against assuming "that we did not . . . have serious conversations. We have a number of ideas on the table," he told reporters, even as he reiterated the U.S. position that Russia's movement into Crimea is unacceptable.
Kerry later told reporters that he had had "zero expectation" that Lavrov would accept an invitation to come to that meeting but that it would have been "inappropriate" for world powers to discuss Ukraine's fate without that country's representative.
Asked at a news conference about the Ukrainian minister - part of a government that Russia claims is illegitimate - Lavrov replied: "Who is it?"
A photo of Kerry and Lavrov tweeted by Russia's Foreign Ministry showed the two looking in opposite directions, with a caption noting that while they didn't always see eye to eye, communication was important.
No similar quips emerged from a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels. A NATO diplomat, describing the session as "tense," said alliance members one by one confronted Alexander Grushko, Russia's representative to NATO, with allegations that Moscow was violating international law in Crimea and concocting threats against ethnic Russians there to justify its actions.
"It was quite an uncomfortable meeting," said the diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. When it was over, NATO announced that it was suspending collaboration with Russian armed forces on several fronts, including planning for Russia to provide a maritime escort for the U.S. ship that is to destroy Syrian chemical weapons at sea.
Before meeting with the Russians, alliance ambassadors traveled from NATO headquarters across town in Brussels for a rare meeting with representatives of the European Union's policy and security committee.
EU representatives gave preliminary approval to a $15 billion aid package of loans and grants to Ukraine over the next several years, on top of a U.S. announcement Tuesday of $1 billion in energy loan guarantees.
The European package, to be approved at an EU summit Thursday, would be partially conditioned on reforms to Ukraine's economy. Kiev estimates that it needs $35 billion in international rescue loans over the next two years.
EU leaders also Thursday will impose asset freezes against 18 people held responsible for embezzling state funds in Ukraine, including the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych. The 28-nation bloc revealed the names of those targeted by its sanctions early Thursday. The list includes what appear to be Yanukovych's closest aides.
In Washington, a senior official said there were discussions within the administration about whether the United States should unilaterally impose sanctions on Ukrainian and Russian individuals connected with corruption and the recent violence in Ukraine. Although the administration is prepared to move forward within days, "we want to coordinate with the Europeans to be most effective," said the senior official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Some European governments with significant financial equities in Russia are reluctant to move toward major sanctions against that nation's economy and have urged the sequential approach the administration and partners are taking.
The Pentagon also announced, in response to what officials said were requests from Eastern European NATO members, that it would more than double the number of aircraft it has based in Lithuania.