The United States is preparing economic sanctions against pro-Russian agents in Ukraine as Foreign Minister Antony Blinken travels to Europe to meet with the Ukrainian leadership and his Russian counterpart as part of a demonstration of diplomacy and pressure that Washington hopes will deter Russia from invading its neighbor. , said U.S. officials.
As pressure rises for the United States and its European allies to take swift action to deter Russian escalation, the forthcoming action against Ukrainian individuals rather than the Russian government underscores some of the administration's interest in exhausting diplomatic avenues with Moscow, officials said. The United States and its allies are hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough after four rounds of negotiations last week failed to narrow the gap between Moscow and Western nations.
The pending sanctions, which will freeze the assets of at least four people acting on behalf of Russia, may be announced as early as Thursday. They would be the latest in a series of actions, according to a decree signed by President Biden last April, which aims to punish people linked to Russia's foreign aggression.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance declined to comment.
"We have made every effort to bring pro-Kremlin disinformation efforts to light and undermine Russia's ongoing destabilization efforts in Ukraine," a US official said. "Russia lays the groundwork for having the opportunity to make a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information and influence operations."
Rachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the move is a way to "signal concerns about lack of progress from diplomacy while trying to maintain coherence."
"The US administration is seeking to penetrate the needle by targeting Ukrainian-based pro-Russian officials while still seeking to maintain coherence on a broader, if shrinking, package," she added.
U.S. officials have not identified the individuals to whom the sanctions will be directed. Since 2014, Moscow has spurred separatist conflict in the eastern part of the country, largely dependent on friendly Russian-speaking Ukrainians who have taken up arms against Kiev's government forces. Ukraine has also accused the Kremlin of using its large network of agents in Ukraine to disrupt peace and promote division.
In recent months, Moscow has deployed more than 100,000 troops to the border regions, prompting fears that they are planning to invade its neighbor or generate a crisis to extract security concessions from the West. Russia has also moved tanks, infantry combat vehicles, rocket launchers and other military equipment westward from their bases in its Far East, according to U.S. officials and social media.
The United States has pressured Russia to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing troops from the border region. Russia has said it has the right to move forces around its own territory and denied that it intends to invade Ukraine. But it has demanded concessions from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which would effectively rewrite the post-World War II security establishment on the European continent.
On Wednesday, Mr Blinken will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Kiev, demonstrating the United States' commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty. Mr. Blinken will also discuss the State Department's contingency planning with U.S. diplomats and their families if Russia "chooses to escalate further," a senior State Department official said. The security situation in Ukraine has seriously deteriorated, the official said, noting that the United States has warned Americans against traveling there.
The next day, Mr Blinken travels to Berlin to meet with Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, to discuss Allied preparations for imposing "massive consequences and serious economic costs" on Russia if it invades Ukraine. The United States weighs a set of leveraged financial sanctions and export controls, while likely avoiding the most crippling energy and economic sanctions, U.S. officials have said.
Despite repeated assurances from the United States and its European allies that the fate of Ukraine would not be discussed without Kyiv at the table, President Zelensky was put on the sidelines in recent negotiations. Of the four rounds of negotiations last week, Ukrainian officials were first present at the table on Thursday in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Current and former advisers to Mr Zelensky say Moscow will not trade with the Ukrainian president because he refuses to submit to Moscow's demands as the price of peace.
Mr. Blinken's visit to Kiev follows a visit by Mrs Baerbock from Germany and Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly. And earlier this week, a group of U.S. senators met with Mr. Zelensky and other top officials in Kiev. The delegation, led by Senator Rob Portman (R., Ohio), discussed, among other things, US defense assistance to Ukraine.
Mr. Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday and the two are scheduled to meet on Friday in Geneva, a sign that hopes for a diplomatic solution to Ukraine's standoff are not dead, a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
The White House on Tuesday characterized the escalating security situation along Ukraine's border as "extremely dangerous."
"We are now at a time when Russia can launch an attack on Ukraine at any time," said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. She added that no option is off the table and warned of "serious consequences" if Russia invades Ukraine further.
A senior administration official also on Tuesday expressed concern over Russia's recent military exercises in Belarus, warning that the movements could be a disguise for military operations targeting Ukraine.
Mr. Lavrov said Tuesday that he expects a response to demands made late last year to the United States and NATO that called for firm legal guarantees to ensure Russia's security, the foreign ministry said after his call with Mr Blinken.
"We reaffirm that Washington will provide specific, article-by-article comments on the said documents as soon as possible, on paper," the statement said.
Russia wants NATO to refrain from future expansion into Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, restricts the Alliance's ties to Ukraine and former Soviet states, and restricts military deployments on the territory of the Alliance's Eastern European members.
The Biden administration has ruled out direct US military intervention in Ukraine, but Mr Blinken is seeking European support for a substantial package of sanctions to be imposed if Ukraine is invaded. European countries have closer economic and financial ties to Moscow than the United States and will therefore suffer more side effects from any sanction, hindering agreement between the United States and Europe on a synchronized package of measures, European officials said.
—Ann M. Simmons in Moscow contributed to this article.
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