In another sign of support for Ukraine and warning to Russia, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that with upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine, its people should be able to forge their own destiny.
Ukraine's future absolutely should not be determined "at the barrel of a gun" or "by ballots marked in Moscow," said Kerry speaking at the State Department at a joint press conference with visiting Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini.
Cautioning Russia not to interfere in the May 25 balloting in Ukraine, he said the U.S. and the West stand united in defense of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"Russia faces a choice," said Kerry, adding that the people of Ukraine need to be given the "ability to breathe through the democratic process."
He welcomed additional sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russian officials involved in the annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninusla.
Kerry also expressed support for ongoing efforts by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to assist Kyiv in realizing constitutional reforms needed to diffuse internal tensions in Ukraine.
Speaking about the United States' commitment to its allies in Europe, Kerry warned Moscow that NATO territory is inviolable and that "we will defend every piece of it."
Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed and seven wounded on Tuesday when their armored column was ambushed by pro-Russian separatists near Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, the Defense Ministry said.
It was the biggest single loss of life by the Ukrainian army since soldiers were sent into the mainly Russian-speaking east of the country to break up armed separatist groups who have seized control of towns and public buildings in a bid to further demands for autonomy.
The ministry, in a statement published on its website, said an armored column came under fire as it approached a bridge near a village 20 kilometers from Kramatorsk, one of several hot spots in the region where the army has had only limited success against the separatists.
About 30 rebels, who had taken cover among bushes along a river, attacked with grenade launchers and automatic weapons, immediately killing two soldiers and wounding three others, the ministry said.
The incident took place on the same day Germany's foreign minister traveled to Ukraine to push for a negotiated solution to the country's crisis.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after arriving in Kyiv he hoped this week's government-sponsored "round table," involving Ukrainian politicians and civic groups from across the country, would help disarm pro-Russian separatists before presidential and mayoral elections later this month.
Steinmeier met with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at Kyiv's Borispol Airport before traveling to the southern port city of Odessa, where street fighting escalated into a building fire on May 2 that killed more than 40 people, most of them separatist supporters. The German foreign minister said the situation in Ukraine remains "dangerous and threatening."
The German minister's trip is aimed at supporting a "road map" for settling the crisis outlined by the OSCE. It calls for both sides in Ukraine to refrain from violence, an immediate amnesty for those involved in the fighting, and talks on decentralization of the country and the status of the Russian language.
Top US official in Kyiv
Meanwhile, Richard Stengel, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, voiced strong U.S. support for elections in Ukraine, saying Russia could face more sanctions if it attempts to disrupt the vote.
"We want to help foster a free and fair election in any way we can," Stengel said in an interview with VOA's Ukrainian Service during a visit to Kyiv.
He said the U.S. looks warily at what Russia might do in eastern Ukraine during the election, stressing that both President Barack Obama and Kerry have urged Moscow not to interfere.
If it interferes, Stengel said the U.S. might consider imposing stricter or even sectoral sanctions.
Stengel also took issue with what he called the "Russian propaganda machine" distorting the real picture in Ukraine.
Moscow's efforts need to be countered, he said: "You have to combat lies with the truth, you have to combat fiction with reality, and that is something we are trying to do."
Stengel is also due to visit Brussels and Riga, Latvia, as part of U.S. efforts to foster greater regional engagement in support of Ukraine’s election, according to a State Department release.
The diplomatic push by Germany and the U.S. follows declarations of independence Monday by two regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists held self-rule referendums on Sunday.
After declaring independence from Ukraine, separatist leaders in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic asked Moscow to consider formally "absorbing" the region into the Russian Federation.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it expects the pro-Russian "self-defense forces" in eastern Ukraine to "react appropriately" if Kyiv agrees to halt "punitive actions" there and withdraw its military forces, as well as right-wing paramilitary forces and "mercenaries," from the region.
Moscow has not yet responded to the Donetsk request for absorption. It said it respects the results of Sunday's referendums and called for a "dialogue" between the Ukrainian government and the two breakaway regions.
Russia retaliates for sanctions
Moscow retaliated for U.S. sanctions on Tuesday, casting doubt on the long-term future of the International Space Station, a $100 billion,15-nation project that was supposed to end the space race of the Cold War era.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Moscow would reject a U.S. request to prolong the orbiting station's use beyond 2020. It would also bar Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines to launch military satellites.
“We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicizes everything,” Rogozin told a news conference.
Washington wants to keep the space station in use until at least 2024. But since the end of the U.S. space shuttle program, Russia's Soyuz spacecraft have been the only means to get there.
The U.S. space agency NASA is working with companies to develop space taxis with the goal of restoring U.S. transport to the station by 2017. The United States currently pays Russia more than $60 million for each astronaut it flies to the station.
No sign of troop movements
The U.S. government released new satellite pictures on Tuesday which it said showed Russian forces were still near the Ukrainian border in recent days, contradicting Russian assertions they had been withdrawn.
President Vladimir Putin announced last Wednesday that the troops had moved, but NATO and the United States both said they had seen no sign of a Russian withdrawal from the frontier.
NATO officials have previously estimated Russia has around 40,000 soldiers close to Ukraine's border, exacerbating the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Colonel Martin Downie, spokesman for Allied Command Operations at NATO, said recent comments by Russia's leadership on a troop withdrawal did not reflect realities on the ground.
“The reality is that Russia continues to have 40,000 high readiness troops massed on Ukraine's border and another 25,000 troops in Crimea. The units on the latest satellite pictures show mechanized infantry, armored vehicles and combat helicopters,” he said in a statement.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.