White House hints at new sanctions

The United States is calling on Russia to take a series of concrete steps to lower tensions in Ukraine by the end of the month, the White House said Friday, hinting that the administration was readying a new round of sanctions if Moscow did not comply.

Moscow and pro-Russian separatists within Eastern Ukraine should return control of three border checkpoints to Ukrainian authorities, release remaining international monitors being held hostage, agree explicitly on terms for a ceasefire agreement, and launch negotiations on an overarching peace plan, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday.

Earnest said the likelihood of additional economic sanctions would increase if Moscow failed to take those steps by June 30.

"We have signaled a clear willingness to act with partners and allies to further isolate Russia," Earnest said, calling the deadline "an important day."

"Additional unhelpful action will lead to additional economic costs," he said.

Earlier Friday, the European Council also said it would move to impose new sanctions if Russia failed to take the steps.

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In a statement, European leaders called on Moscow to “actively use its influence over the illegally armed groups and to stop the flow of weapons and militants across the border, in order to achieve rapid and tangible results in de-escalation.”

Last week, the Obama administration said it was preparing so-called "scalpel sanctions" that would narrowly target Russia's technology, defense, and financial sectors.

The sanctions could ban U.S. companies and financial institutions from doing business with major Russian banks, prevent technology transfers to Russia’s natural gas industries, and block deals with Russian defense companies, according to the New York Times.

There were signs earlier this week that Russia was working to calm the situation. On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin asked the Russian parliament to rescind an authorization allowing him to invade Ukraine and praised a fragile ceasefire agreement between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s eastern and southern regions. Putin also encouraged direct one-on-one talks between the two sides.

The moves came after a phone conversation with Obama, during which the president emphasized “that the United States remains prepared to impose additional sanctions should circumstances warrant,” according to the White House.

But administration officials have said Russia has brought troops back to the Russian-Ukraine border, heightening tensions between the countries.