“As Ukrainian forces move to restore order in eastern Ukraine, it is obvious to the world that these Russian-backed groups are not peaceful protesters.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Germany and the U.S. are prepared to impose greater sanctions on Russia unless it changes course on Ukraine, said German and U.S. leaders Friday, as Ukrainian forces began an offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government launched a military offensive against pro-Russia separatists in the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk earlier on Friday. At least two Ukrainian helicopters were downed in the operation that the Kremlin has said “effectively destroyed” an accord brokered on April 17 in Geneva between Ukraine, the U.S., the EU and Russia.
Under the agreement, pro-Russian rebels were to lay down their arms and relinquish control of occupied buildings and public spaces in exchange for amnesty. But, there was little reported change on the ground since then.
“As Ukrainian forces move to restore order in eastern Ukraine, it is obvious to the world that these Russian-backed groups are not peaceful protesters,” said U.S. President Barack Obama at a joint press conference with his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, at the White House Friday. “They are heavily armed militants who are receiving significant support from Russia.”
Obama said the downing of the two Ukrainian helicopters highlights the fact that pro-Russian groups are not simply local protesters, but are in fact, “well- organized, trained, armed militias.”
The U.S. president cautioned Russia against continuing its current course.
“The Russian leadership must know that if it continues to destabilize eastern Ukraine and disrupt this month's presidential election, we will move quickly on additional steps, including further sanctions that will impose greater costs,” Obama said.
The Geneva agreement also called on all parties to the agreement to refrain from violence, intimidation or provocative actions, and tasked Ukrainian authorities with de-escalating tensions with the assistance of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, monitors.
Individuals linked to Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the self-proclaimed separatist “people’s mayor” of Slavyansk, abducted seven of those OSCE monitors last Friday. Merkel called for the immediate release of the seven monitors, which includes four Germans, saying that it is a “very crucial step” to test Russia’s commitment under the Geneva agreement.
Both Obama and Merkel argued that Kiev has done its part to uphold its obligations under the Geneva accord, but stressed that Russia has failed to do the same.
“I hope that Russia will live up better in the future to its responsibilities. But we need to see deeds matching out their words,” said Merkel. “We have not yet seen any implementation of the Geneva agreement by the Russian side.”
Moscow has reportedly amassed tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine, stoking fears among Kiev’s allies that it is preparing for a military offensive.
Even as Ukrainian forces clash with pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country and Russian forces are stationed on its border with Ukraine, Merkel emphasized the urgency of country-wide elections currently scheduled for May 25.
“What is at stake here is that people in Ukraine can act on the basis of self-determination and can determine themselves which road they wish to embark on into the future,” she said. “The 25th of May is a very crucial date in order to ensure that, and we will see to it that elections can take place.”
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