US, EU may unveil 'serious' steps Monday over Crimea

13th March 2014, Comments 0 comments

US Secretary of State John Kerry warned Thursday that Washington and Europe are preparing a tough response to a breakaway vote in Ukraine's Crimea, depending on how Russia reacts.

Russia's national security team was meeting on Thursday in Sochi, Kerry told US lawmakers just hours before he was to fly to London for last-ditch talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov,

The self-declared leaders of Crimea are to hold a referendum on Sunday in which voters in the majority ethnic Russian region are expected to vote to split from Ukraine and to join Russia.

Ukraine and Washington have rejected the vote as illegitimate.

"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 with respect to the options that are available to us," Kerry warned.

"Our choice is not to be put in the position of having to do that. Our choice is to have a respect for the sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine," the top US diplomat told the Senate appropriations committee.

US President Barack Obama has already signed an executive order setting out the structure for possible US sanctions against targeted individuals and companies for violating Ukraine's sovereignty.

"We have a very clear list of those that would be included in the event that we can't move this process forward," Kerry said.

US visa bans have also already been unveiled out against both Russians and Ukrainians.

- Crimea vote not in doubt -

Kerry was addressing lawmakers on the 2015 budget request before his talks in London with Lavrov.

The two men have clashed in recent weeks on how to end the crisis over Ukraine, with Lavrov so far rejecting a series of proposals put forward by his American counterpart.

Moscow has refused to recognize the interim leadership in Kiev installed by the Ukrainian parliament after pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych fled in the wake of months of street protests.

Kerry told lawmakers the United States estimates there are now currently about 20,000 Russian troops on the Crimea peninsula, below the 25,000 allowed under an agreement with Moscow on stationing its bases there.

And he stressed that for the time being Russia did not "have the assets ... necessary to be able to march in and take over Ukraine," although he acknowledged that could change.

"I don't think there's much doubt given the circumstances what the vote is going to be," Kerry said. The pro-Moscow Crimea Peninsula has historic ties to Russia and is home to its Black Sea Fleet.

"This is not a question mark. The question mark is: is Russia prepared to find a way to negotiate with Ukraine, with the contact group, with the countries involved, in order to resolve this in a way which respects their legitimate interests ... in a way which doesn't violate international law?"

Kerry admitted however that fresh US-Russia tensions "had the capacity" to affect their joint efforts to end the three-year war in Syria.

It was, Kerry said, "one of the ingredients in this which we hope would push people to a more reasonable path."

The European Parliament on Thursday backed tough new sanctions against Russia, including an arms embargo and asset freezes, unless Moscow reverses its military intervention Crimea.

© 2014 AFP

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