U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday again warned Russia of increased sanctions if it tries to sabotage presidential elections in Ukraine, while on Capital Hill some lawmakers expressed frustration with what they see as the Obama administration's incremental measures.
"We are not going to sit idly by while Russian elements fan the flame of instability," Kerry said Tuesday, speaking at the State Department in Washington after meeting with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
"Ukraine has shown remarkable restraint. They have been committed to move their country forward through nonviolence," said Kerry expressing concern over efforts by pro-Russian separatists to "contrive a bogus independence referendum."
"The choice is Russia’s. We are going to stand united in support of Ukraine," added Kerry.
Ashton called Ukraine's May 25 presidential election an important step toward stabilization. She said the Ukrainian people will decide what Ukraine is and what it will be.
Kerry said Russia's support for presidential elections in Syria, where violence in much worse, is at odds with its opposition to election in Ukraine. "Reconcile that one, please," he said.
Kerry said he would meet European counterparts next week to discuss appropriate next steps on Ukraine.
Impatience in Congress
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, another top U.S. official defended the administration’s policy.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that sanctions were working. “Russia’s economy is already showing that this model [of territorial aggression] does not lead to a great Russia, it leads to a broke one,” she said, citing a drop in that country’s credit rating as one measure of the sanctions' impact.
But on both sides of the aisle, some lawmakers called for tougher measures on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies before Ukraine’s elections.
Sen. Bob Corker, the committee’s top Republican, urged sanctions on Russian banks and other economic sectors. Sen. Robert Menendez, the committee’s chair, called for military reinforcements for NATO states.
Separately, on Tuesday, NATO's top commander, General Philip Breedlove, said the alliance may have to permanently station troops in Eastern Europe.
The general said NATO has to look at its responsiveness, readiness and positioning of forces because of the new example shown by what has happened in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine calls for new Geneva talks
Ukraine is ready to back a new round of talks in Geneva in a bid to de-escalate a political crisis with Russia as long as Moscow supports presidential elections, Ukraine's acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, said on Tuesday.
“If Russia is ready to commit itself to support these elections and to eliminate this threat and eliminate its support for the extremist elements in Ukraine, we are ready to have such a round of meetings,” he said at a news conference after a Council of Europe meeting in Vienna on the crisis in Ukraine.
Deshchytsia said his government could support another round of Geneva talks if all the parties agreed to implement any agreement made there.
“But ... the priority for Ukraine is to hold the presidential elections,” Deshchytsia said.
However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said earlier in Vienna it would be “unusual” to hold a presidential election in Ukraine while the government was deploying the army against some of its people.
Lavrov said opposition groups in Ukraine would have to take part in any new round of talks.
The BBC reported that Lavrov had ruled out holding a new round of talks in Geneva, saying they'd be pointless because last month's accord among the United States, the European Union and Russia had not been implemented.
However, Russia said Lavrov and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, agreed Tuesday that it was important to promote dialogue to defuse the situation in Ukraine.
Lavrov and Steinmeier, meeting on the sidelines of a Council of Europe session, underscored "the need to continue joint efforts by Russia, the United States, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to foster the start of a Ukraine-wide national dialogue in the interests of resolving all existing problems,'' the Foreign Ministry said.
'Risk of civil war'
Tuesday was generally quiet in Ukraine's eastern and southern parts, though tensions erupted in the eastern port of Mariupol, according to local media.
The website 0629.com showed images of tires burning near the city council building previously taken over by pro-Russian protesters. People reporting hearing gunfire near a military base.
The deadliest few days since the separatist uprising began have transformed the conflict, hardening positions and leaving little room for peaceful resolution.
Both sides have been burying their dead this week as Ukraine slides further toward war, with supporters of Russia and of a united Ukraine each accusing the other side of tearing the country apart.
French President Francois Hollande warned Tuesday that there will be "chaos and the risk of civil war" if the May 25 presidential vote is not held.
The next few days could prove decisive. Pro-Russia separatists in the eastern Donbass region plan to hold a referendum on secession on May 11, a move similar to what preceded Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Two days before that, on May 9, is the annual Victory Day holiday celebrating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. Moscow has been openly comparing the government in Kyiv to the Nazis, and Ukrainian officials are worried that the day could provoke violence.
Insurgents killed Monday
Ukraine's Interior Minister Arsen Arakov said on Tuesday that 30 pro-Russian insurgents were killed during Monday's military assault to expunge anti-government forces in the eastern town of Slovyansk.
Avakov said that four government troops also died and another 20 were injured during the gun battles.
The Associated Press reported that Ukrainian forces had taken hold of a key checkpoint north of Slovyansk on Tuesday morning, dealing a blow to insurgent lines of communication. The checkpoint had come under repeated attack since the government offensive began.
In southwest Ukraine, Kyiv authorities announced the firing of the acting governor in Odessa. He was replaced with Ihor Palytsya, a member of parliament. Odessa's police chief was also fired over the weekend.
The actions in the predominantly Russian-speaking region come after 46 people died Friday, many in a building fire, after a pro-Ukraine march turned violent.
'Steps away' from military action
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned in interviews with four European newspapers published on Tuesday that Ukraine is close to war.
“The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation,” Steinmeier told El Pais
, Le Monde
, La Repubblica
and Gazeta Wyborcza
. He added that the conflict had taken on an intensity “that a short time ago we would not have considered possible.”
Russia announced on Tuesday that it will abide by a 2010 strategic arms reduction treaty with the United States despite their differences over the crisis in Ukraine, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying.
Signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 2010 as part of a general improvement in bilateral ties with Moscow was hailed in Washington as a major success for President Barack Obama.
But relations between Russia and the United States have since soured over the war in Syria, with both sides pulling out of various forms of cooperation, and are now at their lowest since the Cold War due to the crisis in Ukraine.
In March, Russian news agencies quoted a source as saying the Defense Ministry was considering suspending on-site inspections under START.
However, Ryabkov told RIA Novosti news agency, "There are no reasons today not to fulfill the treaty."
Black Sea fleet bolstered
Also on Tuesday, Russia said it would beef up its Black Sea fleet this year with new submarines and warships, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying.
New air defense and marine infantry units would also be deployed at the fleet's bases, which include Sevastopol in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March.
The fleet, which analysts say comprises around 40 frontline warships, is seen as a guarantor of Russia's southern borders and a platform for projecting power into the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russian officials, businessmen and companies in response to the Crimea annexation, and Washington and Berlin have threatened more penalties if Moscow disrupts Ukraine's presidential elections scheduled for May 25.
Leaders of the anti-government movement say they plan to hold a referendum on autonomy for eastern regions on May 11.
Elsewhere, Ukraine's parliament is holding an emergency session to discuss the escalating crisis in the east of the country.
Ukrainian media reported on Tuesday that security chiefs are expected to brief lawmakers of the Verkhovna Rada behind closed doors on the situation in the east, where pro-Russian forces have seized government buildings and police stations in a string of cities and towns.
Some information for this report provided by RFE/RL, Reuters, AP.