The United States has warned it is “actively preparing” new sanctions to hit Russia if critical Ukraine talks do not produce concessions from Moscow.
US officials privately signaled they had little hope the Geneva talks between Washington, Russia, Ukraine and the European Union would make significant progress.
They also revealed that the toughest available sanctions – those targeting key sectors of the Russian economy – would only come into force in the event of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva, the White House said on Wednesday it needed concrete signs that Russia would de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow separatists have clashed with Kiev’s forces.
“We are actively preparing new sanctions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We are also looking at tomorrow’s meeting for an indication that Russia will, or intends to pursue, a path of de-escalation rather than escalation.”
A senior US official told reporters traveling with Kerry that Russia must show willingness to stop “aiding and abetting” separatists and pull back its troops on the Ukrainian border.
“With regard to sanctions, the president has been very clear: that if Russia does not take this opportunity to de-escalate the cost are going up.”
But the immediate timing of any new, toughened sanctions beyond the current measures targeting senior officials in Moscow and Crimea, was unclear.
Senior US officials emphasized they see maximum impact in simultaneously imposing sanctions with the European Union, which has much closer economic ties with Moscow than the United States.
But speaking on condition of anonymity, they acknowledged that the process of the EU’s 28 members moving through the sanctions process could at times be cumbersome.
They also made clear that the most painful sanctions that have so far been threatened – hits against sectors of Russia’s economy including mining and energy – are not yet on the table.
Washington sees those measures as the ultimate punishment for any move by Russian forces into Ukraine and believes it could quickly get Europe on board to join efforts that could inflict significant pain on economies on the continent.
An official acknowledged that Washington was now trying to calculate the cost President Vladimir Putin should pay for what it sees as the less clear cut scenario of pro-Russian separatists igniting unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The United States is considering requests by Ukraine for non-lethal assistance of various kinds.
But officials said that arming the Kiev government was not an option: firstly, because no quick shipment of weapons could change the military balance in Ukraine’s favour and secondly to avoid becoming embroiled in a proxy conflict with Moscow.
In addition to the four-way talks in Geneva, Kerry will also meet separately in the Swiss city with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsya and EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton.
The United States has backed Kiev’s right to quell separatist uprisings that started in the Crimean peninsula and have since spread to other parts of Ukraine, setting the stage for the most serious rupture in West-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
Putin has denied Moscow has any links to pro-Kremlin militia groups.