WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials on Sunday accused Moscow of reinforcing an estimated 6,000 ground and naval forces in Crimea with additional troops as they announced that Secretary of State John F. Kerry will fly to Kiev on Tuesday to offer a show of U.S. support for the beleaguered Ukrainian government.
In a conference call with reporters, senior Obama administration officials said the Russian military was “settling in” and strengthening its hold on Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine with a heavily ethnic Russian population. The additional forces flown into Crimea on Sunday have surrounded Ukraine’s small contingent of troops in the region, officials said.
The U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed Russian claims that ethnic Russians have been under attack in the area, and hinted that Russia may be behind some provocative actions that have sharpened ethnic tensions in eastern Ukraine.
But they said they have not, so far, seen evidence of a Russian military presence in portions of Ukraine outside Crimea.
On his visit, Kerry plans to meet with members of the Ukrainian legislature and with private civil society groups to discuss planned American diplomatic and economic support for the newly formed government, State Department officials said. They gave no indication that the U.S. planned to agree to the Ukrainian government’s request for military aid, which would be a provocative move.
U.S. officials said they are trying to “expedite” financial aid to Ukraine to ease what they described as a short-term crisis. They said the administration is making progress building support for a broad international effort to penalize Russia economically and diplomatically for its intervention in Ukraine.
France, Britain and Canada are joining the United States in halting preparations for a scheduled meeting of the Group of 8 industrialized nations in June in Russia, the officials said.
But, in an indication of the difficulty the U.S. and its allies may face in trying to punish Russia, German officials indicated Sunday that they are not prepared to drop out of the G-8 meeting and will resist efforts to hurt the Russian economy.
[Updated, 5:55 p.m., March 2: The Group of 7 industrial nations announced late Sunday that they had agreed to suspend preparations for the G-8 meeting in June in Russia. Germany at first resisted pressure to cancel the meeting. And German officials have said they are reluctant to impose economic sanctions on Russia, which they argue would hurt export-reliant Germany as well.]
U.S officials said they have begun canceling trade and military meetings with the Russians and plan other steps to disengage with Moscow in retaliation for what they are terming an “invasion” of Ukrainian territory. They said they are weighing visa bans and sanctions on individual Russian leaders who are deemed to have played a part in the move against Ukraine.
The political arm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the North Atlantic Council, met in Brussels and condemned Russia’s actions. In a statement, the council expressed “grave concern” at the Russian parliament’s authorization of the use of military force in Ukraine.