Kerry’s Kiev Trip Puts Him on Diplomatic Front Lines

Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive tomorrow in Kiev, as the U.S. and its European allies seek ways to increase economic and diplomatic pressure to deter Russian military escalation in Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Kerry’s stop in the Ukrainian capital will raise the stakes by putting him on the diplomatic front lines in the increasingly tense standoff. Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said today in televised remarks that Russia threatened to seize Ukrainian warships if they don’t surrender, and there were reports of more Russian troops moving into Crimea. Earlier, Russia denied a report that it had given the ships, located near the port of Sevastopol, a deadline to capitulate.

A Russian ultimatum to Ukraine “would constitute a dangerous escalation of the situation for which we would hold Russia directly responsible,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today.

Ukraine is becoming a test of whether Western economic and diplomatic weapons -- including sanctions -- can have much impact on Russia President Vladimir Putin, who’s sent military forces into Crimea and threatened to intervene elsewhere in Ukraine in the name of protecting ethnic Russians. In doing so, U.S. and European officials said, Putin has violated several treaties, as well as the United Nations Charter, which undergird security and stability in Europe.

President Barack Obama, speaking to reporters today before a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the U.S. and allies are preparing sanctions to show Russia its actions will be “costly.”

Possible Steps

“We are examining a whole series of steps -- economic, diplomatic -- that will isolate Russia” if it continues on its current course, said Obama, who spoke to Putin by telephone on March 1. One option he cited would be to send international monitors to “de-escalate the situation.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is “consulting with the administration on possible sanctions actions against individual Russians and Ukrainians that range from visa bans and asset freezes, to the suspension of military cooperation and sales, as well as economic sanctions,” the panel’s chairman, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said in an e-mailed statement.

He said Democratic and Republican members of the committee also are working on authorizing at least $1 billion in loan guarantees to bolster Ukraine’s government.

EU Summit

European Union President Herman Van Rompuy today called a March 6 emergency EU summit, where leaders may debate measures to punish Russia if it doesn’t deescalate the crisis by then.

European foreign ministers met today and “strongly condemned” Russia’s moves in Crimea. “In the absence of de-escalating steps by Russia, the EU shall decide about consequences for bilateral relations between the EU and Russia,” including suspending talks to deepen trade ties and ease European travel for Russian citizens as well as “further targeted measures,” the ministers said in a statement.

Russia raised its main interest rate the most since 1998 as its currency plunged to a record low and investors pulled money from the stock market on tensions over Ukraine. The ruble extended its decline to a record 42.6334 against the central bank’s basket at 6 p.m. in Moscow. The Micex, Russia’s benchmark stock index, dropped 11 percent today, the biggest decline since November 2008. OAO Gazprom, which sends half its natural gas exports to Europe through Ukraine, fell 14 percent.

Russia’s Economy

Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said non-military pressure on Putin could be very effective. “I wouldn’t discount it,” he said in a telephone interview.

“The last decade has been a story of Russia’s economic growth as it becomes a fully integrated part of the international economy,” Rojansky said. “The flip side is that Russia can’t act without seeing the effects on the Russian economy.”

Rojansky pointed to the “massive devaluation of the ruble, the massive slide on the stock market” and said “it can get much worse” if the U.S. and European Union decide to freeze the assets of Russian companies.

Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington, said that nothing the West can do including isolating Russia diplomatically -- by suspending the G-8 summit and the NATO-Russia Council -- and bolstering NATO engagement on the alliance’s eastern frontier is likely to reverse Russia’s course.

‘Really Moved In’

“None of those are sufficiently potent to get Putin out,” Kupchan said on a conference call with reporters today. “Unfortunately he has really moved in, in a big way in the last 48 hours,’

Crimea, where ethnic Russians comprise the majority, has become the focal point of Ukraine’s crisis after an uprising triggered last month’s ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine has mobilized its army and called for foreign observers after Russian forces took control of the peninsula.

‘‘What I really worry about is over-reaction on both sides,” said Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. undersecretary of state and ambassador Russia from 1993 to 1996. Putin’s “success in Crimea so far might move him to think that in the next week he can move forces into Eastern Ukraine.”

IMF Delegation

The best option for the U.S. would be to “see what you can do to slow down, if not stop, Russian expansionist efforts” and work with the European Union and International Monetary Fund to help restore stability in Ukraine, Pickering said in a phone interview.

An IMF delegation is scheduled to start meeting in Kiev tomorrow to explore emergency steps to support Ukraine’s indebted economy and avert a default. The team will “assess the current economic situation and discuss the policy reforms that could form the basis of a Fund-supported program,” the IMF said in e-mailed statement today.

The U.S. and allies already have suspended preparation for the Group of Eight summit planned for June in Sochi, Russia. The U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan condemned Russia’s “clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” The group said in a statement yesterday that it is putting on hold its participation in preparing for the summit “until the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have meaningful discussion.”

NATO Council

The political arm of the 28-nation NATO military alliance, the North Atlantic Council, called a meeting for tomorrow at the request of Poland, a member state neighboring Ukraine.

Poland, which was part of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact alliance during the Cold War, asked for the meeting under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which calls for consultations when a member considers its independence or security threatened. It is rarely been invoked and sends a political symbol that NATO is concerned. It is a less strong provision than the Article 5 mutual defense clause.

Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO and so isn’t covered by the alliance’s defense umbrella, though some members with a history under Soviet domination such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic nations have joined the alliance.

Kerry, in remarks yesterday on CBS Television’s “Face the Nation” program, said that Putin’s Russia might be kicked out of the G-8, that most exclusive club of nations, a threat that might carry weight with Putin, who has sought to claim Russia’s great power status.

Georgia Invasion

If Putin’s approach continues, he “is not going to have a Sochi G-8” and “he may not even remain in the G-8,” Kerry said.

Suspending the talks on a trade and partnership pact was the EU’s response the last time Russia invaded a neighbor, by attacking Georgia in 2008. In September of that year, EU governments halted the process, resuming it two months later. The negotiations have made little headway since then.

The EU pushed Putin “without delay” to take up direct peace talks with Ukraine’s new government. A possible mediator would be the United Nations or Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation forum that includes Russia and the U.S.

A range of diplomatic and economic measures would have a damaging impact on Russia, even considering that it holds some $500 billion in foreign reserves, Rojansky said in a phone interview.

‘International Pariah’

“You can’t go down the path of an international pariah state and not end up looking like an international pariah state,” Rojansky said. “If you want Burberry downtown in Moscow, you’ve got to have a trading relationship with the U.K.”

Still, Rojansky said he doubts that Putin will back down because Ukraine is essential to his vision of a Eurasian Union as a counter to the European Union and because his personal authority is intertwined with that project.

“His reputation of a man who sets out a goal and delivers is the underpinning of his authority in Russia,” he said.

The U.S. has to be careful not to overstate its commitments in Ukraine because “we do not have a lot of levers we can pull” to influence Russia, said Sean Kay, a professor of international relations at Ohio Wesleyan University who specializes in Europe.

“We have at best peripheral interests in Ukraine,” Kay said in a phone interview. “The Russians have vital interests in Ukraine. There are dangers of creating false promises of what we might be able to do in Ukraine.”

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