U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Ukraine for talks with the acting president and prime minister as the situation in the country's east remains tense despite a deal reached last week in Geneva aimed at easing the crisis.
Biden's trip to Kyiv, the highest level visit from a U.S. official since the start of the crisis, was born out of discussions with President Barack Obama, said an administration official briefing reporters on Biden’s plane.
“[Vice President Biden] wanted to come to Kyiv to send a very clear message
of the United States' support for Ukraine's democracy, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the official.
“He will call for urgent implementation of the agreement reached in Geneva last week while also making clear ... that there will be mounting costs for Russia if they choose a destabilizing rather than constructive course in the days ahead,” the official said.
White House officials earlier said Biden will discuss the international community's efforts to help Ukraine move forward on constitutional reform, and for what Obama administration officials say will be a free and fair presidential election on May 25.
In addition, Biden is to announce new economic and energy-related technical assistance for Ukraine during his two-day visit to Kyiv, said an administration official.
The two-day talks will also focus on the situation in eastern Ukraine where an Easter Sunday truce barely lasted a few hours before it was shattered by a gunfight at a checkpoint near the city of Slovyansk, controlled by pro-Russia separatists. According to some accounts, three people were killed although the circumstances remain unclear.
Ukraine blames the attack on Russian special forces, which Kyiv says have infiltrated the eastern part of the country in an effort to destabilize it.
Moscow blames Kyiv
Commenting the incident in Slovyansk, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Ukrainian government of not wanting to control extremists who he says are shooting unarmed civilians.
Lavrov said Monday Ukraine is "crudely" violating last week's Geneva agreement which called on all armed illegal groups in the east to disarm and leave. The agreement also called for a mission by European monitors.
In response, Ukraine’s foreign minister expressed surprise over “Lavrov not being aware of what is happening in Ukraine with regard to the Geneva agreement.”
“We are meeting daily in a quadripartite format, together with the OSCE mission leadership, developing ways of de-escalating the situation in Ukraine’s east,” said Andriy Deshchytsia, according to Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.
He also said he is surprised that Russian diplomats present at these meetings apparently are not reporting back to their Foreign Ministry.
Despite apparent efforts to diffuse the tensions, pro-Russian demonstrators who have taken over government buildings in about a dozen eastern Ukrainian cities and towns have so far showed no sign of backing down.
In a stab at Washington, Lavrov said the United States must recognize its share of the responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine because of its support of the new Ukrainian government.
He said attempts to isolate Russia thorough sanctions will fail, saying the majority of the world does not want to isolate Russia.
The pro-Russia activists in eastern Ukraine, many of whom Kyiv says are not locals, are demanding the right to hold referendums on seceeding from Ukraine and joining Russia. One such controversial vote in Crimea last month led to Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Pentagon boost Europe training
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials are saying that details are being worked out for more training with Eastern and Central Europe allies.
Some of the training exercises would be via NATO, others conducted on a bilateral basis, Pentagon officials said at a briefing, adding that all options would "include some level of ground force."
Officials also said that the U.S.is not seeing any substantial troop movements by Russians forces away from Ukraine's border.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Monday to rehabilitate Crimea's Tatars and other minorities who suffered under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, courting a group that largely opposed Moscow's annexation of the region from Ukraine.
Stalin deported Crimean Tatars to Central Asia en masse during World War Two, accusing them of sympathizing with Nazi Germany, and many died in grueling conditions on arrival in exile.
The Muslim Tatars were allowed to return in the waning days of the Soviet Union, whose 1991 collapse left Crimea in an independent Ukraine. They now make up 12 percent of the Crimea peninsula's mostly ethnic Russian population of 2 million.
Many of them boycotted the March 16 referendum in Crimea, which Russia used as a pretext to annex the peninsula, sparking the biggest crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
OSCE mediator meets separatist leader
The senior mediator from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe in eastern Ukraine held his first talks on Monday with the leader of pro-Russian separatists in the city of Slovyansk, a flashpoint of the crisis.
Mark Etherington told reporters he met the self-declared, separatist mayor, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, for two hours. He had asked whether Ponomaryov and his group would comply with last week's Geneva accord under which Russia and Ukraine agreed that militants should disarm and vacate occupied public buildings.
Etherington did not say how the separatist leader responded or give further details. He said he also asked about people who had been detained in Slovyansk, including the previous mayor, about reports of maltreatment of the Roma minority and about a gunfight on Sunday in which at least three men were killed.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this story; some reporting by Reuters