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Kerry: US, Europe Will Respond if Crimea Referendum Proceeds

by VOA News March 13, 2014

The United States and the European Union will respond on Monday with a 'serious series of steps' against Russia if a referendum on Ukraine's Crimea region goes ahead on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday.

Kerry told a congressional hearing he hoped to avoid such steps, which include sanctions, through discussions with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in London on Friday.

'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 in Europe and here with respect to the options that are available to us,' Kerry said in testimony on the State Department's 2015 budget request.

He also reiterated the U.S. position that the planned referendum cannot be treated as valid.

'There is no justification, no legality to this referendum... It violates international law, it violates the U.N. charter, it violates the constitution of Ukraine, and I don't think anybody can believe that a hastily put together, rushed referendum, taking place under the imprint of 20,000 plus troops and all that has happened, without debate, without opportunity, is a genuine referendum,' said Kerry.

He said it is not clear whether Russia is willing to negotiate with Ukraine and the international community to resolve the conflict over Crimea peacefully.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kerry discussed proposals for resolving the crisis in Ukraine during a telephone conversation on Thursday.

Lavrov and Kerry, who are due to meet in London on Friday, discussed 'the situation in Ukraine, taking into account existing Russian and U.S. proposals to normalize the atmosphere and provide for civil peace,'' the ministry said.

Germany warns Russia

Earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Russia risks 'massive' political and economic damage if it does not change course in the Ukraine crisis.

In a speech to the German parliament Thursday, Merkel said Ukraine's territorial integrity is 'not up for discussion.'

She also said the European Union will impose sanctions on Russia if it does not move to set up a contact group to discuss the Crimea crisis.

Commenting on possible ways out of the crisis, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that there was 'hardly any hope' for a diplomatic solution at this point if the referendum goes forward, the German news agency DPA quoted him as saying.

He described the planned meeting between Kerry and Lavrov on Friday as 'possibly the last chance.'

Risk of war

Ukraine's acting president said on Thursday that Russian forces were concentrated on the border "ready to invade" but he believed international efforts could end Moscow's "aggression" and avert the risk of war.

A statement on the presidential website said Oleksandr Turchynov told a local television channel that, when Russian forces took over the southern region of Crimea last week, other units were concentrated on Ukraine's eastern border "ready for an invasion of the territory of Ukraine at any moment."

"We are doing all we can to avoid war, whether in Crimea or in any other region of Ukraine," he said, adding that Ukraine's own armed forces were in a state of full combat readiness.

However, he said: "All of civilized humanity supports our country. All the leading countries of the world are on the side of Ukraine, and I am sure that this united effort in the international arena, bringing together all democratic countries, can still allow us to halt this aggression."

Obama cautions Moscow

President Barack Obama warned Russia again Wednesday that the West will 'apply costs' to Moscow if it continues to interfere in Ukrainian affairs.

Speaking at the White House alongside interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Obama said Washington 'completely rejects' Crimea's planned referendum Sunday on whether to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. He said the vote, 'patched together in a few weeks,' is a violation of international law.

Yatsenyuk thanked Washington for its support, and said his government is 'absolutely ready and willing' for talks with Moscow, but added that Ukraine will never surrender. He also said his government is preparing to sign an association agreement with the European Union later this month.

Today, Yatsenyuk is scheduled to meet in New York with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Congressional support

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John McCain is set to lead a bipartisan delegation to Kyiv Thursday. A spokesman described the visit as a show of congressional support for the interim government, 'and for the Ukrainian people's aspirations for freedom, democracy and territorial integrity.'

Republican McCain and his Senate Democratic colleague Christopher Murphy visited Kyiv in December, at the height of anti-government protests that eventually forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.

Also, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday urged the Senate to pass a House bill backing $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine. He repeated the call in a statement after hosting Prime Minister Yatsenyuk at a bipartisan meeting on Capitol Hill.

'I urge the Senate to act on this package immediately to help ensure the administration has every tool at its disposal to support the aspirations of the Ukrainian people," said Boehner.

Russia war games

Russia announced on Thursday it had started military exercises near the border with Ukraine in what is likely to be seen as a show of force in the standoff with Kyiv and the West over Crimea.

Separately, the ministry said Russia had sent six Su-27 jet fighters and three military transport planes to ally Belarus, responding to a request prompted by joint U.S.-Polish exercises in NATO nation Poland, Interfax reported.

The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed exercises had begun in the Southern Military District near the Ukrainian border, involving 8,500 artillery men. Pictures had appeared earlier on social media showing military vehicles on the move in the area.

Drills were also being held in the Belgorod and Kursk regions, which border Ukraine, state-run news agency RIA cited the Defense Ministry as saying.

Russian stocks slump

The Russian stock market hit a four-and-a-half-year low on Thursday and is down 20 percent since mid-February. The cost of insuring Moscow's debt against default rose to its highest level in nearly two years and is up by more than a third this month.

The crisis has already forced several Russian firms to put plans on hold for public offerings to raise cash abroad.

Yet none of that appears to have slowed down President Vladimir Putin, who told officials of the Paralympic Games he is hosting in Sochi that Russia was 'not the initiator' of the crisis.

About-face on monitors?

Russia has for the first time backed deployment of an OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, including Crimea, the chairman of the European rights and security watchdog said on Thursday, calling this a possible "big step forward."

"The Russian Federation supported the idea of a rapid approval and rapid deployment of a special monitoring mission for Ukraine," Thomas Greminger, Switzerland's ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters after a meeting of OSCE envoys in Vienna.

"This is clearly a positive development," Greminger said. But a number of issues remained to be clarified in negotiations between the OSCE's 57 member states, he said.

Switzerland, which currently chairs the OSCE, has proposed sending a mission of about 100 monitors to Ukraine to look into human rights, ethnic issues, security and other factors to help defuse the crisis in the country.

Such a mission would require consensus among all members, giving Russia veto power.

Recent attempts by OSCE monitors to enter Crimea had been blocked by uniformed armed men, presumed to have been Russian soldiers.

Some reporting by Reuters

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