U.S. expectations for talks with Russia on the Ukraine crisis next week are not high, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe said on Wednesday, but it is essential to make every effort to ease tensions.
Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland also reiterated the U.S. accusation that Russia was behind the takeover of government buildings in eastern Ukraine this week.
Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union will hold a ministerial meeting next week to discuss the Ukraine crisis, the EU said on Tuesday.
“We don't have high expectations for these talks, but we do believe it is very important to keep that diplomatic door open,” Nuland testified at a congressional hearing.
Russia told the West on Wednesday that four-way talks between representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and European Union must focus on fostering dialogue among Ukrainians and not on bilateral relations among the participants.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered the message in a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Foreign Ministry said. It said Lavrov and Kerry urged all sides to refrain from violence in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ukraine's interior minister warned that standoffs with pro-Russia demonstrators in three eastern regions must be resolved in the next 48 hours, either through negotiations or by force.
Arsen Avakov told reporters that a "political solution" is still possible. But he vowed protesters who want conflict "will get a forceful response from Ukrainian authorities."
Pro-Moscow groups have seized several government buildings in eastern Ukraine and demanded a vote on joining Russia, in a dramatic escalation of the protests against the country's Western-friendly interim government.
Authorities say shots were fired and at least 60 protesters arrested in Kharkiv Tuesday, while demonstrators held on to government offices captured Sunday in Donetsk.
In Luhansk, Ukrainian authorities say more than 50 people were allowed to leave state security headquarters early Wednesday, where the pro-Russia activists were allegedly holding 60 hostages. Officials say the protesters have wired the building with explosives.
Kerry sees Russia's hand
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accuses Russian agents and special forces of stoking separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine.
He called the Russian actions "a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea."
Kerry told a Senate committee Tuesday that Moscow's involvement in Ukraine "clear and unmistakable."
He said President Barack Obama is preparing more tough sanctions on Russia if it continues destabilizing Ukraine.
A buildup of troops along Russia's border with Ukraine has raised concerns that Moscow could move to take parts of eastern Ukraine, following its annexation of the largely ethnic Russian Crimean peninsula last month.
Moscow claims business as usual
Russia's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said Moscow is not carrying out any "unusual or unplanned activity on its territory near the border with Ukraine that would be of military significance."
But few are convinced. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told lawmakers Russia has not taken sufficient steps to ease tensions. She urged an international observer mission in Ukraine be bolstered to include 500 people.
Russia orders US educators to leave
Russia’s government has informed a U.S.-sponsored education program to cease operations in the Russian Federation.
American Councils, a Washington-based program agency administering a number of educational and exchange initiatives, has been told by the Ministry of Justice to halt its activities until its registration is renewed, said Carter Johnson, regional director for the organization.
Under the order, all expatriates working for the organization are expected to leave Russia pending the program’s re-registration, said Johnson.
Before issuing the order, the Justice Ministry reportedly requested from American Councils to provide an activity report for the past six months and submit a plan of operations for the next half year.
According to American Councils, this was the first time the ministry requested such detailed documentation.
Some observers have linked the development to President Vladimir Putin’s speech earlier this month before Russian security officials in which he called on them to be on the look-out for “destructive” activities on the part of foreign non-governmental organizations.
Russia faces capital flight
A surge in capital outflows from Russia underscores how international tensions over Ukraine are adding to the woes of Russia's already struggling economy.
Russia's central bank has published balance of payments data that showed an estimated $63.7 billion in net capital outflow in the first three months of this year - as much as the $63 billion in outflows seen during all of 2013.
The surge coincides with slumping investment and a sharp deterioration in business confidence, as forecasters slash economic growth forecasts after Russia's annexation of Crimea and warnings it could intervene further in Ukraine.
Economists say much of the outflow is being driven by companies and ordinary households, which have been rushing to convert their ruble savings into dollars.
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday Russia should be prepared to spur domestic production to replace Ukrainian imports if Kyiv decides to impose trade restrictions.
In a move to bolster Ukraine, European Union on Wednesday announced the creation of a “support group” to provide the country with financial, technical and political assistance. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the initiative is evidence that “the European Union stands by Ukraine."
VOA's Al Pessin contributed to this story. Some reporting by Reuters.