The Obama administration left the door open to providing some military assistance to Ukraine while ruling out providing arms or other “lethal” aid at this time.
With Ukrainian security forces on the offensive to push pro-Russian separatists from buildings they’ve seized in the country’s east, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the “main focus” for the U.S. is providing economic aid.
Pressed on whether the U.S. is considering providing equipment to assist Ukraine’s military, such as armored vests or night-vision goggles, Carney said at a White House briefing that he had no announcements to make. Lethal equipment, which would include weapons, is “not something we’re currently considering,” he said.
The U.S. also is evaluating the possibility of new sanctions to increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Carney said, without elaborating. There is “substantial evidence” suggesting direct Russian involvement, he said.
The confrontation between Ukrainian authorities and separatists -- who the U.S. and the European Union say are backed by Russia -- flared into deadly fighting over the weekend, raising the risks of a wider conflict. Ukrainian troops stormed an airport in Kramatorsk, taking it under control, and other units backed by armored personnel carriers blocked all approaches to the town of Slovyansk. Police stations in the cities of Horlivka, Kramatorsk, Donetsk and Mariupol also have been occupied by separatists.
Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the confrontation has entered a dangerous period. Ukrainian forces are facing a well-armed, well-trained opponent, he said today in an interview on MSNBC.
McFaul, who left the post of ambassador in February, said if Ukraine uses force against “these pro-Russian armed men, it’s going to be a very, very bloody and dangerous moment that I think could then precipitate Russian involvement later.”
He said that Putin “has said very clearly: if Russians are in danger in eastern Ukraine, we have the right to defend them.”
U.S. and European stocks fell as the crisis escalated. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index lost 0.2 percent to 1,826.46 at 1:48 p.m. in New York, paring a loss of 0.8 percent. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 36.38 points, or 0.2 percent to 16,136.86.
The turmoil also has hit Russia. The ruble has lost 8.6 percent against the dollar this year, the seventh-worst performer in the more than 170 currencies tracked by Bloomberg. Russia’s benchmark Micex Index is down more than 10 percent this year.
Carney said the Ukrainian government has taken initiatives to try to defuse the crisis, offering amnesty and negotiations.
“We continue to counsel restraint but absolutely understand that the dynamic created by these coordinated seizures of buildings in eastern Ukraine has become somewhat untenable for the lawful government of Ukraine,” he said.
The U.S. and Russia plan to proceed with four-party talks in Geneva with EU and Ukrainian officials in two days, even as the EU and the U.S. are considering widening sanctions against Russian individuals and possibly companies.
In a telephone conversation yesterday, President Barack Obama told Putin the conflict still can be resolved diplomatically, though any talks “cannot succeed in an environment of Russian military intimidation on Ukraine’s borders, armed provocation within Ukraine, and escalatory rhetoric by Kremlin officials,” according to a statement from the White House.
Putin told Obama he should “use the American side’s capabilities to prevent the use of force and bloodshed as much as possible,” according to a statement on the Kremlin’s website.
EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday decided to put more names on a list of people to be sanctioned, adding to the 51 Russian and Ukrainian political figures blacklisted following Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last month. The EU added four Ukrainians to the list including former deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov.
Carney refused to say whether the U.S. has drawn up its own list of individuals for possible sanctions.
“I’m not going to speculate about when we may have an announcement on further sanctions,” he said. “We are evaluating our options and considering quite seriously next steps when it comes to sanctions.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. wasn’t likely to move forward with new sanctions before the April 17 conference.