The U.S. State Department said Friday that it's difficult to achieve a political solution to the Ukraine crisis when there are still thousands of Russian forces fomenting unrest in the country.
Department spokesman John Kirby, responding to comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a St. Petersburg business forum, said it would be "heartening" if Russia fully complied with the Minsk accords outlining the cease-fire agreement, which were negotiated during multiparty talks in the Belarusian capital in February.
The United States knows that the cost of sanctions imposed by the West on Russian individuals and businesses as a result of the Crimea annexation and Ukraine crisis have left the Russian economy vulnerable, he said.
Kirby spoke after Putin called on the United States and other Western powers to put pressure on authorities in Kyiv to resolve the conflict in east Ukraine.
Following a televised speech at the annual St. Petersburg International Business Forum on Russia's economic prospects for the coming year, Putin engaged the event's moderator, American television journalist Charlie Rose, on the subject of Ukraine.
'Our influence is not enough'
"I assure you if there was something in the Minsk agreement that we didn't agree with, we would not have signed it," Putin said in response to a question from Rose.
"Every day, we hear again and again the same thing," he said. "We are always hearing that Russia must exert its influence on the southeast of Ukraine. We do that, but our influence is not enough. Our American and European partners must also influence the government in Kyiv."
Fighting erupted again this month between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists who Kyiv says are financed and directed by the Kremlin.
A U.S. official told VOA on Friday that "we have seen combined Russian-separatist forces conduct extensive training in eastern Ukraine over the last several months. That training also incorporated Russian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones], an unmistakable sign of Russia’s presence. Ukraine also shot down an advanced UAV in late May that bore distinctly Russian identification and requires an airfield to operate.”
Adding to tensions are thousands of Russian troops massed near Russia's Ukrainian border — a presence that Kyiv and Western officials say raises the prospect of a full-fledged Russian invasion.
Russia 'ready for action'
Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow who spoke to VOA via Skype, said the arrival of fresh troops was well timed to give the Kremlin military options during the critical summer months.
"Now the Russian military are ready for action," he said. "They're in the prime of their fighting condition. So if there's going to be a summer campaign, now is more or less the time to begin it — now or in the coming several weeks. Because in those parts, you fight either in the middle of the summer when the dirt is dry, or the dead of winter when it freezes."
But Nadia Arbatova, head of European Political Studies at the Institute of World Economy in Moscow, argued that a political settlement is still possible.
"Russia wants to have guarantees about Ukraine's neutral status," Arbatova said. "That's important for Putin and for Russia's political leadership. And I think that on the macro level, there could be an agreement under the best scenario. It should be a compromise."
That pill may be too hard for Kyiv to swallow, Arbatova said. But politics, she added, is after all the art of compromise.
VOA's Pamela Dockins and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.