The United States warned Russia today of stepped-up Western sanctions to make its economy "bleed" if it disrupts a crucial presidential election in Ukraine just 10 days away.
Ukraine's interim leaders are battling to keep the country together for the May 25 vote in the face of a bloody insurrection in the east and a tense standoff with former master Russia.
Kiev yesterday hosted the first round of so-called national unity talks under an OSCE initiative to try to resolve the crisis on Europe's eastern flank and allow the vote to go ahead.
Crucially however, the pro-Moscow rebels fighting against Kiev's rule in the industrial east of the country were not at the table, despite Western calls for inclusive talks. A US official told reporters in London that Washington and its allies are working "to send a unified message to pro-Russian separatists and Moscow that any disruption of these elections will result in the next round of costs for Russia including sectoral sanctions". President Barack Obama has already drafted an executive order to impose sanctions across key sectors such as banking, energy, defence and mining, adding to punitive measures already imposed by Washington and Brussels.
"There are a lot of things we can do to create bleeding," the official said, adding that the aim was "to use a scalpel rather than a hammer".
Facing the very real prospect of Ukraine's partition, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov had said yesterday that his administration was ready to reach out to pro-Russians in the east but that the separatists must first lay down their arms.
"We will not yield to blackmail," he said. "We are ready to listen to the people of the east but they must not shoot, loot or occupy government buildings." Without the rebels there was no progress reported at the Kiev talks, but the US official said Ukrainians were working
to hold another round in the restive east on Monday. Western leaders see the May 25 vote as crucial for the future of Ukraine after Russia's much criticised annexation of Crimea in March, which plunged relations between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War. Dozens of people have been killed in the southeast since mid-April as government troops battle rebels now occupying over a dozen towns and cities.