US Vice President Joe Biden will meet Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders on Tuesday in a symbolic show of America's support for Kiev as Washington and Moscow blamed each other for violating a peace deal to ease the country's crisis.
The meetings, on the second day of Biden's two-day visit to Ukraine, take place after the US and Russia put a radically different spin on a crunch telephone call between their diplomatic chiefs on reviving the accord reached last week in Geneva. Under the deal, signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union, pro-Kremlin rebels holding a string of eastern towns were supposed to disarm and give up the buildings they have seized. The accord was meant to reduce tensions in the worst confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War
US Secretary of State John Kerry called on Moscow to put pressure on the pro-Russian separatists, which Washington sees as backed by Russia. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Washington to influence the Ukrainian government, which Moscow accuses of "grossly breaching" the Geneva deal.
Kerry told Lavrov that "concrete steps" to defuse the crisis should include "publicly calling on separatists to vacate illegal buildings and checkpoints, accept amnesty and address their grievances politically", said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
In Moscow, the Russian foreign ministry said Lavrov had asked Kerry to "pressure Kiev to stop hotheads from provoking a bloody conflict and to encourage the Ukrainian authorities to strictly fulfil their obligations", the Russian foreign ministry said.
Lavrov also accused Ukraine's government of an "inability and unwillingness" to rein in Pravy Sektor ("Right Sector"), an ultra-nationalist group the separatists blamed for an attack Sunday on one of their checkpoints in the flashpoint town of Slavyansk. The shootout, started by unidentified attackers, broke a brief Easter truce and killed at least two separatist rebels.
Military moves, sanctions
US President Barack Obama has threatened more sanctions on Moscow if the Geneva accord is not implemented soon, beyond those already imposed by the United States and the European Union. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that Washington was ready to make good on its threat, warning that "if progress is not made in coming days we will impose further costs".
But Lavrov said it was the Ukrainian government that was violating the deal and told reporters in Moscow that sanctions would fail. "Attempts to isolate Russia have absolutely no future because isolating Russia from the rest of the world is impossible," he said. His country, he said, was "a great power, independent, and it knows what it wants".
Russia, which annexed Ukraine's Crimea peninsula last month after sending in troops, has massed a military force estimated at 40,000 soldiers on Ukraine's eastern border. The United States and NATO have responded by boosting their own forces in eastern Europe.
But Obama's preferred weapon is sanctions. Those imposed up to now, barring travel and freezing assets of Putin allies and friends, have however had little impact on Russia's actions.
The EU is divided on going further, with some member states worried that increased punishment could jeopardise supplies of Russian gas.
'We are defending ourselves'
In Ukraine's east, the insurgents remained firmly entrenched in public buildings they have occupied for more than a week.
Although highly trained military personnel whose camouflage uniforms are stripped of all insignia have been seen helping the rebels secure the some 10 towns they hold, Putin denies they are Russian special forces – a stance echoed by the self-declared mayor of rebel-held Slavyansk.
"There is not a single representative of the Russian armed forces here. Nor of the state structures of Russia," said Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, blaming the Ukrainian authorities for the hostilities. "If they had not come to us we wouldn't need any weapons. We are defending ourselves," he said.
However, The US State Department on Monday released images it claimed proves armed separatists in eastern Ukraine are actually Russian military or intelligence officers. The photos, said the state department, showed a military fighter with a distinctive red beard seen in Georgia in 2008 – when Russia invaded – wearing the insignia of a Russian special forces unit. The same man is also pictured in Crimea and Slavyansk. Other images from Slavyansk show men carrying the same kind of RPG-26 rocket launchers issued to Russian troops.
Jen Psaki said it was "just further evidence of the connection between Russia and the armed militants".
Meanwhile, Viktor Yanukovych – the Kremlin-backed president toppled in the pro-EU protests that unleashed the current crisis – demanded Kiev withdraw its armed forces from the separatist east to avoid a "bloodbath", the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Ukraine's new government last week launched a military operation to try to dislodge the separatists, but failing badly to do so it put it on hold until at least Tuesday, after the Easter holiday.
A spokesman in Kiev for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring implementation of the Geneva agreement, said there was "no confirmation" of the separatists leaving occupied buildings.