The Group of Seven rich countries have agreed to start slapping fresh sanctions on Moscow as early as tomorrow over the worsening Ukraine crisis amid Western fears of a Russian invasion.
Russian warplanes violated Ukraine's airspace several times on Thursday and Friday and may have been part of an effort to test Ukraine's radar, the Pentagon said. The air incursions took place as tens of thousands of Russian troops, massed on Ukraine's southern and eastern borders for weeks, began military drills announced on Thursday.
One Western diplomat warned: "We no longer exclude a Russian military intervention in Ukraine in the coming days." The diplomatic source noted that Russia's United Nations envoy, Vitaly Churkin, "has been recalled urgently to Moscow" for consultations.
In eastern Ukraine, Kiev's Western-backed coup-installed government is waging an offensive against pro-Moscow rebels holding a string of towns. A 13-member military observer team sent into Ukraine by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor an April 17 Geneva accord designed to de-escalate the situation was being held hostage by rebels in the town of Slavyansk.
Yesterday, the separatists invited journalists from Russian media into the building where the observers are being held, and showed military identification cards and military insignia they said were taken from the detainees. That, the separatists said, was proof that they were not observers but were spying for Nato.
Russia's envoy to the OSCE said Moscow would take all steps to free the observers, Russian news agencies reported.
US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Malaysia with President Barack Obama, spoke of "a spectrum of sanctions" that "allows us to escalate further" if the situation deteriorates.
He said sanctions were possible on individuals with influence in specific sectors of the Russian economy, such as energy and banking. "When you start to get at the cronies, the individuals who frankly control large parts of the Russia economy, and some of the entities under their control, you are imposing a significant economic impact beyond strictly sanctioning an individual," Rhodes said.
In a joint statement released on Friday night by the White House, the G7 nations said they would act urgently to intensify "targeted sanctions". The White House said US sanctions could be levied as early as tomorrow.
The G7 consists of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
European Union foreign ministers are also to meet soon to discuss the issue.
The United States and the EU have already targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle with visa and asset freezes and imposed sanctions on a key Russian bank.
Obama on Friday said that new sanctions against Russia were "ready to go" but had signalled they would not target key areas of the Russian economy such as the mining, energy and the financial sectors. US officials have said those measures would only be considered if Russia sent its regular forces into Ukraine.
The G7 communiqué did not give details of what form the new sanctions would take, but they appeared to mark a significant ratcheting up of the visa bans and asset freezes already imposed.
Putin last week said the sanctions were causing difficulties for Russia, though he said the impact was not "critical".
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters