The White House accused Moscow on Monday of stirring up trouble in Ukraine, as pro-Russian demonstrations provoked fears that President Vladimir Putin might mount a second invasion there just weeks after annexing Crimea.
The administration said demonstrators who seized government buildings in the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk were not locals, and were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign backed by the Kremlin.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the demonstrations were “not a spontaneous set of events,” and White House spokesman Jay Carney said evidence suggested some protestors were paid.
A further Russian incursion “either overtly or covertly” would seriously escalate the crisis, he added.
“We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention,” said Carney, who warned that the U.S. would retaliate by targeting specific sectors of the Russian economy.
Secretary of State John Kerry called on Russia to “publicly disavow” the activity by separatists in Ukraine.
Kerry spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by phone in the morning about the events and said the U.S. is watching with “great concern,” Psaki said Monday.
The developments appeared to copy Moscow’s playbook from Crimea, which Putin abruptly severed from Ukraine last month to join Russia following a Moscow-backed referendum that most of the world rejected as contrary to international law.
Before the referendum, pro-Russian demonstrators called on Ukraine’s military to leave the region and warned of persecution. Crimean demonstrators called on Moscow for help, leading Russia to send in troops.
Similar events are now taking place in several cities in Eastern Ukraine, where demonstrators called for a referendum on joining Moscow and asked Russia to send in peacemakers.
Tensions in Crimea, meanwhile, haven’t faded. On Sunday, a Ukrainian military officer was shot and killed there.
The latest aggressive moves by Moscow provided fresh ammunition for critics of the Obama administration’s response to the crisis.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) slammed the administration for not granting Ukraine’s request for military assistance, saying it signaled weakness and would invite Russian aggression.
“As the risk of further Russian aggression against Ukraine appears to be growing, it is outrageous that the Obama administration still has not met the Ukrainian government’s request for modest military assistance,” he said in a statement. “By withholding military assistance, the administration may think it is reducing the risk of further conflict. In fact, the opposite may be true: This decision will appear to Putin as yet another sign of weakness, which may only invite further aggression.”
The administration has announced sanctions on a bank used by the Kremlin and a crowd of allies of Russia’s president, but has made it clear that force will not be an option.
Efforts to tighten sanctions on Russia have been complicated by the closer ties between the economies of Russian and Western Europe, where U.S. allies have been reluctant to pursue tougher sanctions.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Monday said its government is prepared to settle the political crisis in Ukraine, according to Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency.
The ministry warned, however, that Ukraine could face further “impasses and crises” if it doesn’t heed the calls of its citizens.
“If the political forces calling themselves state power continue trading the destiny of the country and the people irresponsibly, Ukraine will obviously face ever more new impasses and crises then,” the ministry said. “It is high time for them to stop making nods towards Russia and apportioning all the blames for Ukraine’s misfortunes to it.”
While Putin has said his government has no plans to take over more of Ukraine’s territory, outside observers say the economic and military pressure Moscow is imposing on Ukraine is intended to force Kiev to turn to the East.
Moscow wants to avoid further economic integration between Ukraine and Western Europe, the issue that initially triggered the crisis in Ukraine and led to the toppling of that country’s last government in March.
Russia moved troops near the Ukraine border after its government fell, and officials at the Pentagon on Monday said there had been no drawdown.
The administration has worried throughout the crisis that the Russian incursion would not end with Crimea, and has repeatedly warned of additional sanctions.
“We’ve made very clear that should Russia take action that violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity further or violates Ukraine’s sovereignty further, there will be further consequences,” Carney said.
Rebecca Shabad and Kristina Wong contributed.
Updated at 8:24 p.m.