Kerry: Russian intervention in Ukraine 'would be a grave mistake'

Kerry: Russian intervention in Ukraine 'would be a grave mistake'
A Russian army officer on Tuesday helps guide an armored personnel carrier on a street in Sevastopol, the Ukrainian Black Sea port that hosts a major Russian navy base. (Andrew Lubimov / Associated Press)

WASHINGTON —  With Russian troops beginning military exercises near Ukraine, Secretary of State John Kerry warned Wednesday that a Russian intervention in the Eastern European nation would rip Moscow’s international standing “into shreds.”

While insisting that the Obama administration is determined to avoid a U.S.-Russian conflict over Ukraine, Kerry said that a military move would cost Moscow "hugely in a world where they're trying to assert a greater legitimacy…. It would be a grave mistake."

Kerry emphasized that the administration does not see the issue in Cold War terms, and was trying to avoid portraying the crisis in ways that could increase tension.

"This is not Rocky IV," he said.

In an interview with a group of reporters, Kerry said U.S. officials are considering providing a $1-billion loan guarantee, plus a direct grant of unspecified size, to supplement an aid package that the International Monetary Fund is discussing with leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. He said Europe is considering a $1.5-billion supplement to the IMF package.

A major U.S. aid package to a post-revolutionary government in Ukraine, a corrupt and nearly bankrupt state, probably would face congressional resistance. But Kerry said Washington needs to do more than  “applaud” the efforts of the Ukrainian opposition, which Saturday forced former President Viktor  Yanukovich into hiding.

Kerry declined to specify how the U.S. military would respond to action by Russia’s army or its Black Sea fleet based in southern Ukraine. But he disputed that Russia holds all the cards in the unfolding effort to determine Ukraine’s fate, despite Moscow’s huge economic leverage and military presence.

If Russia intervened, "it would be an egregious step against the will of the Ukrainian people, and it would require an appropriate response from a lot of different people in a lot of different places.... I think the U.N. and others would react very adversely to that," he said.

U.S. officials, eager to avoid a potentially costly struggle, have been working to persuade Moscow to cooperate in helping form a new government in Ukraine that would represent both the country's pro-European west and its pro-Russian east.

But Russian officials have denounced the leaders in Kiev as "coup plotters," and stepped up their harsh rhetoric in an apparent effort to intimidate the opposition.

Kerry said that Russia, which has condemned foreign intervention in Libya, Syria and elsewhere, should follow its own advice in Ukraine.

He said the United States has some responsibility for safeguarding Ukraine under a 1994 treaty that says both the United States and Russia are "guarantors" of its integrity.

"That's a viable treaty," he said.

A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said later Wednesday that no decision has been made on the aid package, and that the next step toward such assistance is for the Ukrainians to form a “multiparty, technical government.”

Western officials want to make sure a responsible government is in place before they write checks, analysts say.

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