By Matthew Lee
and Lara Jakes
WASHINGTON: 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 Kiev.
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, said 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 United States 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 United States 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.
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.
In Crimea, jittery residents lined up at their banks to withdraw cash from their accounts amid uncertainty over the future of the peninsula, which Russian troops now control.
“These people are afraid their bank will collapse and no one wants to lose their money,” said resident Tatiana Sivukhina. “Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow.”