KIEV: US Vice-President Joe Biden started a two-day visit to Kiev yesterday in a pointed show of US backing as Russia accused Ukraine’s government of “grossly breaching” a deal designed to de-escalate separatist tensions.
Biden was to reinforce a message to Russia — which Washington sees as supporting Ukraine’s insurgency — that time is running out for it to persuade pro-Kremlin rebels holding a string of eastern towns to comply with the pact struck in Geneva on Thursday, a senior US official told reporters travelling with the vice president.
“This is going to be a situation where we take stock and determine in the relatively near term what our next step should be,” the official said.
US President Barack Obama has threatened more sanctions on Moscow, beyond ones already imposed by the United States and the European Union targeting the inner circle of Russian President Vladimir Putin if the pact is not implemented soon. But just before Biden arrived, Moscow claimed it was Ukraine that was violating the Geneva accord.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Kiev was “unable or maybe unwilling to control the extremists who are calling the shots”. He referred to a shootout Sunday near Ukraine’s Slavyansk in which at least two insurgents were killed by unidentified attackers. The attack, which Moscow blamed on pro-Kiev ultra-nationalists, broke a brief Easter truce.
Lavrov also told reporters in Moscow that sanctions would fail, saying: “Attempts to isolate Russia have absolutely no future because isolating Russia from the rest of the world is impossible.”
His country, he said, was “a great power, independent, and it knows what it wants”. The Geneva accord, signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the EU, calls for all “illegal armed groups” in Ukraine to surrender their weapons and halt the occupation of public buildings and other sites.
It was meant to have lowered the heat on a simmering crisis that has become the worst confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War.
Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last month after sending in troops, has massed a military force estimated at 40,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s eastern border.
The United States and Nato have responded by boosting their own forces in eastern Europe. A report in The Washington Post said Washington was poised to send ground troops to neighbouring Poland.
But Obama’s preferred weapon is sanctions. The ones imposed up to now, barring travel and freezing assets of Putin allies and friends, have had little impact on Putin’s actions so far.
Brussels is divided on going further, with some EU states worried that increased punishment could jeopardise supplies of Russian gas.