In a last-minute bid to stave off a new chapter in the East-West crisis over Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia on Thursday that it faces immediate and "very serious" sanctions if it annexes Ukraine's strategic Crimea region.
His comments echoed those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who hours earlier said Russia risks "massive" political and economic consequences if it refuses to soften its stance against the new government in Kyiv.
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The warnings from the West served as a last attempt to head off a confrontation over Crimea, which holds a vote Sunday on whether to break off from Ukraine and perhaps join Russia. The showdown has been cast as a struggle for the future of Ukraine, a country with the size and population similar to France, which is caught between its long-standing ties and traditions with Russia and more progressive and economic opportunities in the West.
Kerry was headed to London later Thursday in his last meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before the Crimea vote. In a brief phone call Thursday morning, Kerry underscored U.S. concerns about the Crimea vote and made clear there will be costs if Russia continues to escalate the crisis, according to a senior State Department official familiar with the discussion. The official was not authorized to discuss the situation by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Kerry and Lavrov have spoken almost daily as the Ukraine crisis has unfolded but have yet to find any common ground.
At a Senate hearing, Kerry said Moscow should expect the U.S. and European Union to take measures against it on Monday if Russia accepts and acts on a decision by Crimea to secede from Ukraine. The U.S. and EU say the vote Sunday violates Ukraine's constitution and international law. Russia has said it will respect the results of the referendum.
"There will be a response of some kind of the referendum itself and, in addition, if there is no sign of any capacity to be able to move forward and resolve this issue, there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday in Europe and here," Kerry told the Senate panel.
Moscow refuses demands
It was not clear, however, whether Russia would heed the warnings, and Moscow has refused demands by the West to pull back troops from Crimea and respect Ukraine's territorial boundaries. Under a long-standing security agreement with Ukraine, Russia is allowed to deploy up to 25,000 troops to the Crimean Peninsula, and has a large navy there.
"There are limits on how much blunt force, in terms of sanctions and isolation, will move somebody who doesn't seem to have been particularly responsive to that throughout his career," said John Norris, a security expert at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think-tank in Washington. He was referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, Norris said, the people around Putin, including Russian business leaders and wealthy citizens who travel to the West, may have more influence on Moscow if they start feeling squeezed by sanctions. "That may not be decisive in Putin's thinking right now, but I think it does begin to move the thinking of those around him," Norris said.
Kerry said he planned to make clear how high the stakes are when he sees Lavrov in London, and suggested he would press Russia to accept "something short of a full annexation" of Crimea — but did not elaborate on what that might entail.
"My hope is that they will come aware of the fact that the international community is really strong and united on this issue," he said.
IMF aid program
President Barack Obama has threatened sanctions against unidentified Russian officials and businesses that he has said are directly involved in destabilizing Ukraine. But Congress on Thursday put off a vote that would have approved the sanctions, as well as approve $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine and International Monetary Fund revisions to help Kyiv. The Senate won't vote on the measure until March 24 at the earliest, when lawmakers return from a weeklong recess.
Earlier, in Berlin, Merkel told lawmakers that the European Union and other Western nations would soon freeze bank accounts and implement travel restrictions if Russia refuses to enter "negotiations that achieve results and aren't just a play for time."
If Moscow does not begin to "de-escalate" the situation, Merkel said the 28 EU members, the U.S. and other trans-Atlantic partners were prepared to take even stronger measures that would hit Russia economically.
"If Russia continues on its course of the past weeks, that will not only be a great catastrophe for Ukraine," Merkel said in the nationally televised address. "It will cause massive damage to Russia, both economically and politically."
'Election at the point of a gun'
Still, during hours of pointed questioning by Congress, Kerry on Thursday sought to maintain a pragmatic tone. He said Ukraine should not have to choose between allying with the Western world and Russia in the East.
"We believe Russia has interests and has an ability to be able to be important to the development of Ukraine, and so does Europe," Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "And there's no reason why they shouldn't look in both directions."
Of Crimea, he added: "There's no doubt that they feel a huge tie to Russia. That can be reflected and respected without invading with your troops and having an election at the point of a gun."