(CNSNews.com) – With the clock running down on a ceasefire between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday called on Russia to show, “in the next hours, literally,” that it was working on disarming the militias.
Hours later, however, a senior State Department official said the comment “shouldn’t be taken literally,” as Kerry simply intended to underline the urgency of the situation.
A ceasefire announced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on June 20 expires on Friday. Also on Friday, European Union leaders meet in Brussels, where the possibility of imposing new sanctions on Moscow over its intervention in Ukraine will be discussed.
Kerry’s comments after meeting in Paris with his French counterpart came against the backdrop of both of those looming events.
“[On] Ukraine, we are in full agreement that it is critical for Russia to show in the next hours – literally – that they are moving to help disarm the separatists, to encourage them to disarm, to call on them to lay down their weapons and begin to become part of a legitimate political process,” Kerry said alongside Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
But a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on background and off-camera several hours later, rowed back the remark.
“I think he was making a point that, as quickly as possible, the armed separatists should put down their arms and the Russians should play a role in that,” the official said.
“I think he was making a point about urgency. It wasn’t – it shouldn’t be taken literally, but making a point about urgency, as he referenced yesterday, right, about steps that they could take to show the Europeans, to show the United States that they’re serious about the peace process.”
At a daily press briefing in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was asked what Kerry meant in the comment: “What exactly happens if they [the Russians] don’t meet this ‘hours, literally’ deadline?”
“The weeklong ceasefire expires tomorrow, so that’s partly what was driving the secretary when he was talking about timing,” she replied. “Also, the European Council is meeting tomorrow to discuss among other things possible additional sanctions against Russia.”
“The secretary wasn’t outlining specific timing for additional sanctions but underscoring the need that this needs to happen quickly,” Harf added.
Asked whether Kerry with his “hours, literally” comment was alluding to the possible imposition of new sanctions, Harf said, “He was not.”
“No,” she continued. “I mean, in general, we’ve said we could do it very quickly. But no, he was not talking about anything specifically.”
Neither the E.U. nor the Obama administration is particularly keen to impose new sanctions on Russia. Kerry said alongside Fabius that further measures against Moscow “need to be ready” – before adding, “but our preference is not to have to be into a sanctions mode.”
“We’ve been very clear that we remain prepared to impose additional sanctions, including sectoral, should circumstances warrant,” Harf said.
More than three months have passed since President Obama signed an executive order providing authority for so-called sectoral sanctions – measures targeting sectors of the Russian economy – but despite repeated threats to impose them the administration has chosen thus far not to go ahead.
Last March, amid a crisis that saw the Moscow-backed former president ousted following street protests, inhabitants of Ukraine’s Crimea in a referendum voted to join Russia. The international community at large did not recognize the referendum, but President Vladimir Putin moved quickly to annex the strategic region.
Then pro-Russian separatists controlling key towns and facilities in two other regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, organized similar votes, after which they declared themselves independent “people’s republics” last month.
The government of the newly-elected Poroshenko sought to rein them in, but last Friday ordered the week-long ceasefire.
After backing the truce, separatists in a serious breach used a man-portable air-defense system to down a Ukrainian military helicopter on Tuesday, killing all nine personnel onboard.
The Kremlin has been pushing for the ceasefire to be extended beyond Friday’s deadline. Harf said the U.S. supported an extension, “as long as the parties that have signed up to it abide by it.”