LONDON -- The U.S. hopes Russia will play a constructive role in the May 25 presidential election in Ukraine, but if Moscow or its proxies disrupt it, the U.S. and European Union will move to impose heavier economic sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday.
"I'm not going to get into announcing today what the sanctions are," Kerry said following a meeting in London with his counterparts in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. "We have completed our work. We know what they are. ... If they have to go into effect, they will have an impact."
A senior State Department official told The Associated Press that the U.S. shared its strategy to use a "scalpel rather than a hammer" to target vulnerabilities in Russia's business, banking, mining, energy, defense or other sectors. The official, who was not authorized to speak by name about the discussions in London, briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
"Let me emphasize, our hope is not to do this," Kerry said "Our hope is not that we have to go to the next stage. I say to the Russians and everybody, our hope is to de-escalate."
But he added: "If Russia or its proxies disrupt the elections, stand in the way of the Ukrainian people being able to exercise their vote, that is when and if there would be additional sanctions."
Kerry hailed European-backed peace talks on ending Ukraine's crisis. But they began with little promise Wednesday when pro-Russian insurgents - who weren't even invited to the session - demanded that the Kiev government recognize their sovereignty.
The "road map" put forth by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe calls for national dialogue as a first step toward resolving the escalating tensions, in which the insurgents have seized government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declared independence, while government forces have mounted limited offensives to retake control of the region.
Instead of a dialogue, the day was more a case of competing monologues, with the two sides as far apart as ever. Still, Kerry attempted to portray it as a positive step.
"We welcome the successful national dialogue round table in Kiev that took place yesterday and the very good conversation there on decentralization, constitutional reform and the protection of minority rights." Kerry said. "And we hope that the separatists, we hope the Russians, we hope that others who are disgruntled by what is taking place will take note of a legitimate effort to try to reach out, bring people to the table and find political compromise."
In a jab at Russia, Kerry claimed that the level of decentralization and autonomy that Ukraine's acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has articulated "far exceeds any level of autonomy or decentralization that exists anywhere in Russia."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called the first meeting of the national dialogue a positive step and said he was encouraged to see preparations for the presidential election proceeding across much of Ukraine. He said Britain had already committed nearly $3.4 million to the OSCE for its work and announced an additional $840,000 for election monitoring.
"We all agreed at the meeting that Russia's behavior towards the elections will determine whether or not wider economic and trade sanctions will be applied by the United States and by the European Union," Hague said. "We all agreed to continue preparations for these sanctions, while of course urging Russia to stop any actions that prevent the elections going ahead peacefully."
Kerry said that pro-Russian separatists and their supporters currently are "sowing mayhem" in cities like Slavyansk.
"Far from defending the rights of the people in the east, they are seeking to speak for everybody through the barrel of a gun and through their own narrow sense of what they want for an outcome," he said.
On Thursday, Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, claimed the Ukrainian army destroyed an insurgent base in Slavyansk and another one in nearby Kramatorsk, about 95 miles west of the Russian border.
Meanwhile, Russia on Thursday ratcheted up pressure on Ukraine, saying that it only will deliver gas to its struggling neighbor next month if it pays in advance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a letter to European leaders that Moscow would switch to pre-paid deliveries if Ukraine, which serves as a major conduit for Russian gas supplies to Europe, failed to start settling its mounting gas debt. He said that Ukraine's gas debt to Russia has kept rising and reached $3.5 billion, even though Ukraine has received $3.2 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.