US pledges $1B to Ukraine as Kerry visits

(UPDATED) Kerry accuses Moscow of looking for a 'pretext' to invade Ukraine and condemns Russia's intervention on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula as an 'act of aggression'

IN KIEV. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 4, 2014. US State Department photo

KIEV, Ukraine (UPDATED) – Washington on Tuesday, March 4, announced a $1 billion support package for debt-laden Ukraine as US Secretary of State John Kerry became the highest-profile foreign diplomat to visit Kiev’s new interim government amid a Cold-War style standoff with Russia.

Stepping up the rhetoric against Russia, Kerry accused Moscow of looking for a “pretext” to invade Ukraine and condemned Russia’s intervention on the flashpoint Crimean peninsula as an “act of aggression.”

Kerry’s trip and the announcement of financial aid seemed designed to highlight Washington’s determination to support the authorities in Kiev as the West grapples to bring under control the most serious crisis in the region since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Kerry – who held talks with interim president Oleksandr Turchynov and new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk – also paid tribute to protesters killed on Kiev’s Independence Square.

The deadly clashes there culminated in the ouster of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych late last month, triggering the Crimean crisis.

Kerry said Russia had committed an “act of aggression in Ukraine” by mobilizing troops in Crimea.

“I think that it is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said.

He also suggested Russia could expect further punitive action by the international community unless it took steps to calm the situation. The US has already withdrawn military cooperation.

“If Russia does not choose to de-escalate… then our partners will have absolutely no choice but to join us to continue to expand the kind of steps we have taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically,” he added.

Kerry also said that the US offer of $1 billion in loan guarantees was “immediate” and aimed “to support Ukraine’s recovery”, with US authorities working on a broader plan including with the International Monetary Fund.

On Tuesday, the European Commission also offered an aid package reportedly worth more than one billion euros, as cash-strapped Ukraine says it needs 25 billion euros ($35 billion) over two years.

Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22 after three months of protests against his failure to ratify a trade deal with the European Union.

Thousands of pro-Moscow forces are now in de facto control in the autonomous territory of Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based.

‘Deeply moving’

Shortly before Kerry arrived in Kiev, President Vladimir Putin insisted at a press conference that Russia had the right to use “all means” to protect its citizens in Ukraine but denied he had already deployed troops.

US officials traveling with Kerry said Moscow could face sanctions within days.

“I think there will be movement on sanctions very likely later in this week and there is a whole spectrum of sanctions,” one said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kerry also honored the protesters killed on Independence Square, where mounds of red and pink carnations neatly stacked along the road remain a poignant tribute to the lives lost.

Barricades still stand on the square, with men warming themselves next to fires in large metal barrels. Bullet holes in nearby street lamps serve as reminders of the carnage.

“It was deeply moving to walk into a group of Ukrainians… and to listen to their pleas of passion for the right not to go back to life as it was under former president Yanukovych,” Kerry said of his meeting with protesters.

“They raised their voices for dignity and for freedom. But what they stood for so bravely… will never be stolen by bullets, or by invasions, it cannot be silenced by thugs on rooftops,” he said.

“It is universal, it’s unmistakable, it’s called freedom.” –

FULL COVERAGE: Crisis in Ukraine

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