WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John F. Kerry accused Russia on Saturday of organizing attacks on government offices in eastern Ukraine and warned that there would be new U.S. economic sanctions unless Russia took steps to ease tension.
In an afternoon phone conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Kerry "expressed strong concerns that attacks today by armed militants in eastern Ukraine were orchestrated and synchronized, similar to previous attack in eastern Ukraine and Crimea," the State Department said.
Kerry left no doubt that he believed Russia was behind the assaults, saying that the militants "were equipped with specialized Russian weapons and the same uniforms as those worn by the Russian forces that invaded Crimea." Russia formally annexed the former Ukrainian region of Crimea last month.
"The secretary made clear that if Russia did not take steps to deescalate in eastern Ukraine and move its troops back from Ukraine's border, there would be additional consequences," the statement said.
Attackers targeted police headquarters in the city of Donetsk and a police station and another office in the nearby city of Slavyansk. There were also reports of shooting incidents in other cities in eastern Ukraine, an industrial region with a large ethnic Russian minority.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on a number of key Russian officials and a bank with strong ties to the Russian government elite. The Obama administration has threatened broader economic sanctions as well, but it has held back in hope of first winning support from the European Union, which has strong economic ties and greater leverage with Moscow.
The Russian government is demanding that the interim government in Kiev, which took over after President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted, grant Ukraine's regions more autonomy. Such a move would give Russia greater leverage with Ukraine, and probably prevent it from moving decisively into an alliance with Western Europe.
Western diplomats and analysts worry that Russia wants to sow civil unrest to make the interim Ukrainian government look weak before the May 25 elections to choose a new government.
Western leaders believe Putin would prefer to stop short of a full military intervention because of the risk that an invasion could lead to a bloody confrontation that would bring stronger Western retaliation and erode his domestic support in Russia.
Instead, they believe, his goal is to operate in a "gray zone" short of intervention.
"The Russians are masters of the gray zone," a senior European official said last week.
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