WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry accused Moscow on Tuesday of accelerating the crisis in Ukraine instead of sticking to an agreement to ratchet back tensions, and said NATO partners should step up efforts to lessen Europe's energy dependence on Russian oil.
Kerry's comments were part of a two-punch pushback on Russia by U.S. diplomatic and military officials. At the Pentagon, a spokesman said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel raised concerns with his Russian counterpart about "irregular military troops" under Moscow's influence that are operating in eastern Ukraine.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council think-tank, Kerry said NATO is facing a defining moment in the strength of its alliance. He pledged anew that NATO partners — including those that border Ukraine or Russia — would be defended to the hilt if their sovereignty is threatened.
"NATO territory is inviolable," Kerry said in his 20-minute speech. "We will defend every single piece of it."
He lambasted Moscow for what he described as reneging on a diplomatic deal struck two weeks ago in Geneva to calm tensions between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the central government in Kiev. For weeks, separatists in key Russian-speaking eastern cities have overtaken local government buildings and stirred unrest in protesting the leadership in Kiev.
But Ukraine officials in Kiev, and much of the West, believe Russian special forces are inciting the turbulence, and fear it is a first step toward the region trying to break away from the rest of the country, as Crimea voted to do last month. As recently as last week, Kerry told reporters that Ukraine intelligence officials have intercepted conversations from known Russian commanders with separatists in Ukraine.
Additionally, Kerry last week said the U.S. intelligence officials believe that Russia's spies and military are actively sending personnel, weapons and money to eastern Ukraine and helping separatists there with operational planning and coordination.
On Tuesday, Kerry said Ukraine's leaders in Kiev have pulled down barricades, canceled counterterror operations against the separatists and introduced legislation to give protesters amnesty — all as promised in Geneva as their part of the deal with Russia.
By contrast, "not one single step has been taken by Russia in any public way that seriously attempts to live by the spirit or the law of what was signed in that agreement," Kerry said. "In fact, it's fair to say they have escalated the crisis even further."
He called on Europe to further isolate Russia — a day after the U.S. announced new economic sanctions against government officials in Moscow and some businesses — and for all NATO members to maintain strong defense budgets.
He also said "one of the greatest single strategic differences" that could be taken to isolate Moscow would be for Europe to end its dependence on Russian energy. He called for diversified energy sources, an expansion of infrastructure to transport oil and gas and increased energy storage — although he did not say specifically how that would happen.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters that during Hagel's phone call Monday to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in which they discussed Russia's role in the violence in Ukraine, the conversation was at times "terse" but "never uncivil."
Kirby said Hagel described the U.S. view that the pro-Russian forces operating in eastern Ukraine are being manipulated, or at least influenced by, by Moscow.
"It's an influence we'd like to see stop," Kirby said. "It's an influence that is only further fomenting the pro-Russian separatists that were already in Ukraine, fomenting and fostering the violence that they're committing. And again, Secretary Hagel was pretty clear that we expect that behavior to stop."
Kirby said that while Shoigu expressed a "different view," there should be little doubt that "irregular elements" inside Ukraine are instruments of Russian influence.
"I grew up in Florida; if it looks like an alligator, it's an alligator," Kirby said.
Hagel also was assured, twice during the conversation, that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine, Kirby said.
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