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US warns of new sanctions as key Ukraine talks loom

People sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 15, 2014
People sing the Ukrainian national anthem during a pro-Ukraine rally in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 15, 2014

The United States on Tuesday threatened Russia with new sanctions ahead of high-stakes talks on the Ukraine crisis, as it backed Kiev's right to confront separatist uprisings in its volatile east.

The US and the European Union are preparing for their first four-way talks with Ukraine and Russia on Thursday, although hopes are not high for any breakthrough at the Geneva meeting, amid a slew of failures in past weeks.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that with Ukraine threatened with a split between its Russian-speaking east and EU-leaning west, it is hoped the talks could de-escalate tensions.

Priorities included trying to get Russia to demobilize pro-Kremlin militias, who have seized control of government buildings in 10 cities in Ukraine's southeast, although Moscow has denied any links to them.

But Psaki made it clear that while the US hoped diplomacy would prevail, Washington and the EU were prepared to slap Moscow with tougher sanctions if no headway is made in Geneva.

"Not only do we anticipate additional sanctions at some point, we're preparing additional steps," she said, adding Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken Tuesday with his French, German, British and EU counterparts.

Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers drive on the road from Donetsk to Odessa on April 15, 2014
Ukrainian armoured personnel carriers drive on the road from Donetsk to Odessa on April 15, 2014

Fears are growing of armed clashes, which could trigger an all-out war, with an estimated 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border.

Ukraine rolled tanks toward a flashpoint eastern city on Tuesday to quash a separatist surge backed by Moscow -- a high-risk operation that was sharply condemned by the Kremlin but won Washington's support.

The 20 tanks and armored personnel carriers were the most forceful response yet by the Western-backed government in Kiev to the occupation of state buildings across Ukraine's rust belt.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Ukrainian interim counterpart Andriy Deshchytsya will Thursday have "the first opportunity to engage... at the same table, with the EU, with the United States," she said.

"We feel there should always be an opportunity and an opening for diplomacy," Psaki insisted, saying an "off-ramp" still existed for Moscow.

Constitutional reform for Ukraine could also be on the agenda, she said, noting: "These are priorities that even the Russians have said they support."

An elderly  protester cries as she takes part in a rally outside the Ukrainian Parliament guarded by Maidan self-defence activists, in Kiev on April 15, 2014
An elderly protester cries as she takes part in a rally outside the Ukrainian Parliament guarded by Maidan self-defence activists, in Kiev on April 15, 2014

- Kiev has 'right' to take steps -

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned Tuesday his western neighbor was "on the brink of civil war -- it's frightening."

But the White House said Ukraine faced an "untenable" situation over the uprisings.

"We understand the government of Ukraine is working to try to calm the situation in the east and note the measured approach of the Ukrainian security forces thus far," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

While force was "not a preferred option," Carney said, "the Ukrainian government has a responsibility to provide law and order, and these provocations in eastern Ukraine are creating a situation in which the government has to respond."

"You have Russian-tied thugs coming in and going into all these different communities in Ukraine," a senior US official said, asking not to be identified.

"It is the country of Ukraine -- they have the right to take steps to remove them from buildings, to promote calm in these communities."

Po-Russian activists hold shields that say, 'Obama hands off Ukraine' and 'Down with US and EU' as they guard a barricade outside the secret service building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 12, 2014
Po-Russian activists hold shields that say, "Obama hands off Ukraine" and "Down with US and EU" as they guard a barricade outside the secret service building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk on April 12, 2014

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin held "frank and direct" talks late Monday, the White House said.

But the Kremlin chief continued to reject any links to the Russian-speaking gunmen who have proclaimed the creation of their own independent republic in Crimea.

The US and EU have already unveiled coordinated sanctions, targeting a slew of Russian officials close to Putin, as well as the separatist leaders who engineered Crimea's split from Ukraine last month.

But Psaki warned new sanctions could cut even deeper, suggesting Washington may be ready to target Russia's key mining, energy and financial sectors -- after Thursday's talks.

"Thursday is the next opportunity to have a diplomatic discussion, and I think it's safe to lean into the unlikelihood of making announcements (on sanctions) before Thursday," she stressed.

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