By Justin Sink - 04/16/14 02:04 PM EDT
The White House said Wednesday it had prepared new sanctions against Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, although it stopped short of detailing what or when new penalties may be levied.
"It is accurate to say we have additional sanctions prepared and we will impose them as appropriate," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.
NATO's move highlights the tougher signals sent by the west in recent days, as fears of a new Russia invasion of Ukraine have increased.
The administation also is weighing a package of non-lethal aid for Ukraine that might include medical supplies and clothing, according to reports.
The White House has repeatedly warned that it could expand penalties imposed against Russian and Ukrainian leaders deemed responsible for the unrest in the former Soviet republic.
But it's unclear if the White House would move forward with the broad, sectoral sanctions President Obama threatened during his trip to Europe earlier this month. Such penalties could have a sizable impact on American companies, and the U.S. would likely want to partner on the move with a reluctant European Union.
The State Department indicated Wednesday that they did not "expect" to move forward with any penalties until after a meeting Thursday with officials from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and European Union in Geneva.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Wednesday echoed Carney, saying that the U.S. was continuing " to prepare, as we've said, additional sanctions and other steps if we can't get some de-escalation here."
"Don't expect any before tomorrow's meeting, but if there are not steps taken by Russia to de-escalate, we will take additional steps, including additional sanctions," Harf said.
The toughening rhetoric from the administration comes as the Ukranian military has moved to crack down against pro-Russian militants who have occupied government buildings in Eastern regions of the country.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian troops and separatists traded fire at a small military airport near Kramatorsk. But on Wednesday, separatist militants commandeered six armored personnel carriers from Ukrainian forces that were moving to disrupt protests, and stormed the government center in the industrial city of Donetsk. The White House has endorsed Kiev's move to disperse the separatists, who have seized facilities in nearly a dozen cities and demanded additional autonomy.
The State Department on Wednesday issued a warning imploring travelers to "defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine" — a sign that conditions in the country were deteriorating. The U.S. also warned citizens to avoid all travel to certain eastern regions "due to the presence of Russian military forces in the Crimean Peninsula and on the eastern border of Ukraine."
"The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly," the State Department said. "U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine should avoid large crowds and be prepared to remain indoors for extended periods of time should clashes occur in their vicinity."
Some congressional Republicans have criticized the White House for so far declining to send Kiev lethal assistance.
"We ought to at least, for God's sake, give them some light weapons with which to defend themselves. So far, this administration's not only not done that, but they won't even share some intelligence with the Ukrainian government," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told CBS News's "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
On Tuesday, Carney would not answer questions about whether the U.S. was weighing providing the Ukrainian military with body armor or night-vision googles.
"I just don't have anything more to say about what kinds of assistance has been requested or what we’re considering," Carney said.
But the White House spokesman said the administration was "obviously" evaluating "ways that we can support the Ukrainian government."
Already, the U.S. last month delivered 300,000 meals ready to eat to the Ukrainian military — the equivalent of approximately $3 million in aid.
And the White House acknowledged that CIA Director John Brennan travelled to Kiev last weekend, suggesting that U.S. intelligence agencies could be assisting the Ukrainian government.