Washington warned Russia on Thursday it was preparing a “very serious” response together with Europe to a breakaway vote in Ukraine’s Crimea region that has sparked the most explosive East-West standoff since the Cold War.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia needed to show immediate flexibility over the Black Sea peninsula’s Sunday referendum on switching over to Kremlin rule — a vote backed by Moscow but not recognized by Kiev or much of the international community.
“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 with respect to the options that are available to us,” Kerry told lawmakers in Washington.
His blunt comments came shortly after Ukraine’s parlaiment voted to set up a huge volunteer force that could keep Russian troops from advancing beyond the region of two million people they seized at the start of the month.
Russia launched its own military manoeuvres at its neighbour’s doorstep and also dispatched fighter jets to Belarus in a show of military muscle that betrayed no willingness to compromise.
The suddenly tangible danger of war breaking out on the EU’s eastern border prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to tell Russian President Vladimir Putin his country faced long-term political and economic damage unless he showed an immediate willingness to compromise.
US President Barack Obama had a day earlier also thrown his full weight behind Ukraine’s new pro-European leaders in their Cold War-style standoff with the Kremlin.
National Security and Defence Council chief Andriy Parubiy said Ukraine’s new 60,000-strong National Guard would “ensure state security, defend the borders, and eliminate terrorist groups” — a term many in Kiev use to describe the well-armed militias who patrol Crimea alongside Russian troops.
Ukraine’s conventional army of 130,000 soldiers — half of them conscripts with ageing equipment — is dwarfed by a 845,000-strong Russian force that is backed by nuclear arms.
Russia’s tanks and artillery units were training on Thursday across three regions neighbouring Ukraine while 4,000 paratroopers began performing drills in the central region of Rostov.
The Russian defence ministry refused to disclose details about the size of the operations but noted that units were “increasing the intensity of field training exercises”.
Moscow also confirmed sending six fighters and three transport jets to Belarus in response to NATO’s decision to start flying reconnaissance aircraft over Poland and Romania as part of the Western military alliance’s attempts to monitor the movement of Russian troops.
Austrian police meanwhile announced the arrest of Ukranian tycoon Dmytro Firtash, one of the top backers of the ousted pro-Kremlin regime, on suspicion of bribery and forming a criminal organisation.
The flaring crisis between two of the former Soviet Union’s biggest states was sparked by the ouster last month of a pro-Kremlin regime that in November rejected an historic EU deal that would have pulled Kiev out of the Kremlin’s orbit for the first time.
The more nationalist and Western-leaning team that rose to power on the back of a bloody popular revolt is viewed with derision by Putin and increasing warmth by Washington and EU states.
Putin’s March 1 decision to order troops into Crimea for the “protection” of the Russian-speaking majority there now threatens to invite a host of political and economic sanctions that could leave the Kremlin more isolated from the West than at any point since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
Merkel, a fluent Russian speaker whose upbringing in Communist East Germany shaped both her cautious approach to Moscow and understanding of the importance of keeping relations with the Kremlin on track, delivered her most ominous warning to date in an appearance before the German parliament.
“If Russia continues its course of the last weeks, it would not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine,” the German chancellor told the chamber.
“It would not only change the relationship of the European Union as a whole to Russia. No, it would also, and I am firmly convinced of this, massively damage Russia both economically and politically.”
Merkel accused Russia of using the “failed” expansionist tactics of the previous two centuries.
Russia’s parliament is still due to consider legislation next week simplifying the process for the annexation of Crimea — a strong possibility after the Black Sea region holds a referendum on Sunday on becoming a formal part of the Russian Federation.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — a respected policy forum for wealthy democracies — meanwhile said it was postponing the process for Russia to join the 34-member group.
The European Union is due to debate travel bans and asset freezes on Monday against Russian officials held responsible for threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The White House has been moving towards punitive measures faster than its European allies — their financial and energy sectors intertwined tightly with Russia — and has already approved visa restrictions and financial penalties on Moscow officials.
Obama told Ukraine’s visiting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on Wednesday that Washington was willing to move much further still if Putin failed to soften his stance immediately.
“There’s another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path,” Obama told reporters after awarding Yatsenyuk, whose legitimacy Putin rejects, the honour of a government leader by meeting him in the Oval Office.
“But if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government.”
US officials say Moscow will have its best chance to show a willingness to compromise and avert even more punishing Western measures on Friday during talks in London between Kerry and Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov.
But Russia has so far shown no willingness to either call back its troops or reconsider its support for a referendum that both Kiev and much of the global community view as illegitimate.
The White House said on Sunday that even Moscow’s key diplomatic ally Beijing supported Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” after talks between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.