In blistering testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian special forces of orchestrating "chaos" in eastern Ukraine this week to set the stage for a possible invasion of the region and bluntly warned that Moscow would be hit with significant new economic sanctions if it chose to launch a strike.
Kerry's comments reflected the Obama administration's growing concern that the unrest raging in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk could offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse for an armed incursion. Pro-Russian demonstrators have seized an array of government buildings in recent days and demanded the right to secede from Ukraine, leading Kiev to send troops to retake the compounds. U.S. officials worry that Putin is trying to force Ukraine into a clash with the protesters so Moscow would be able to justify an intervention on humanitarian grounds.
"No one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea," Kerry said. "These efforts are as ham-handed as they are transparent, and quite simply what we see from Russia is illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary."
Russia has denied meddling in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow has been steadily ratcheting up its war of words with Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry warned Kiev's fledgling government that any further use of force in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv could lead to civil war. "We are calling for the immediate cessation of any military preparations," it said in a message on its website.
More tantalizingly, the ministry went on to accuse "American experts from the private military organization Greystone" of working with Ukrainian troops to prepare for a crackdown on the country's pro-Russian residents.
Speaking on background, a State Department official notably did not deny the presence of Greystone personnel in the country. "I'd refer you to that company for any questions on its personnel," said the official. "As for the United States, we do not have any U.S. military units in Ukraine."
Greystone, formerly an affiliate of the notorious private security firm known as Xe Services, broke off as a standalone company in 2010. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Its website advertises protective services and training; aviation maintenance and operations; site security and management; and vulnerability assessments and risk management.
Kerry followed his allegations against Russia with warnings that the U.S. was prepared to impose new sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy and those "orchestrating" the actions in eastern Ukraine. Sanctions on "energy, banking, mining - they're all on the table," Kerry said. Existing sanctions have targeted Russian individuals involved with Moscow's seizure and annexation of Crimea.
The U.S. hopes to launch multilateral negotiations in the next 10 days involving Washington, Kiev, the European Union and Moscow but no date has been agreed upon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday he was prepared for the talks, but "we need to understand the format and agenda of this meeting."