KIEV, Ukraine - In a somber show of U.S. support for Ukraine's new leadership, Secretary of State John Kerry walked the streets Tuesday where more than 80 anti-government protesters were killed last month, and promised beseeching crowds that American aid is on the way.
Kerry met in Ukraine with the new government's acting president, prime minister, foreign minister and top parliamentary officials. Speaking to reporters afterward, Kerry urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to stand down and said the U.S. is looking for ways to de-escalate the mounting tensions.
"It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," Kerry said. "It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve. That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior."
Kerry made a pointed distinction between the Ukrainian government and Putin's.
"The contrast really could not be clearer: determined Ukrainians demonstrating strength through unity, and the Russian government out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations. In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing."
He said the penalties against Russia are "not something we are seeking to do, it is something Russia is pushing us to do."
President Barack Obama, visiting a Washington, D.C., school to highlight his new budget, said his administration's push to punish Putin put the U.S. on "the side of history that, I think, more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people, are able to make their own decisions about their own lives. And, you know, Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he is not abiding by that principle."
Speaking at a fundraiser later Tuesday, Obama said it might be possible for the situation to "de-escalate in the next several days and weeks."
Obama also spoke for more than an hour Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been in contact with Putin in recent days and whose country has deep economic ties with Russia.
The Obama administration announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package in Washington as Kerry was arriving in Kiev. The fast-moving developments came as the United States readied economic sanctions amid worries that Moscow was ready to stretch its military reach further into the mainland of the former Soviet republic.
Kerry headed straight to Institutska Street at the start of an hourslong visit intended to bolster the new government that took over just a week ago when Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych fled. Kerry placed a bouquet of red roses, and twice the Roman Catholic secretary of state made the sign of the cross at a shrine set up to memorialize protesters who were killed during mid-February riots.
"We're concerned very much. We hope for your help, we hope for your assistance," a woman shouted as Kerry walked down a misty street lined with tires, plywood, barbed wire and other remnants of the barricades that protesters had stood up to try to keep Yanukovych's forces from reaching nearby Maidan Square, the heart of the demonstrations.
Piles of flowers brought in honor of the dead provided splashes of color in an otherwise drab day that was still tinged with the smell of smoke.
"We will be helping," Kerry said. "We are helping. President Obama is planning more assistance."
The Ukraine government continued to grapple with a Russian military takeover of Crimea, a strategic, mostly pro-Russian region in the country's southeast, and Kerry's visit came as Putin said he wouldn't be deterred by economic sanctions imposed punitively by the West.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Andrii Deshchytsia told reporters that Ukraine was in a much stronger position today than it was even a week ago, having rallied the support of the U.S. and the West. He said it's unlikely Kiev will ever go to war to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea but said doing so wouldn't be necessary, describing the economic penalties and diplomatic isolation more painful to Russians than bullets would be.
U.S. officials traveling with Kerry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Obama administration is considering slapping Russia with economic sanctions as soon as this week. Members of Congress say they're preparing legislation that would impose sanctions as well.
Officials said the sanctions could be implemented in tiers, with an initial round of penalties targeted at individuals the U.S. says were involved in the ousted Ukrainian government's corrupt activities. Putin is almost certain to be excluded from those penalties, the officials said, adding that it is rare for the U.S. to directly target a head of state with them.
As Kerry arrived, the White House announced the package of energy aid, along with training for financial and election institutions and anti- corruption efforts. Additionally, the officials said, the U.S. has suspended what was described as a narrow set of discussions with Russia over a bilateral trade investment treaty. It is also going to provide technical advice to the Ukraine government about its trade rights with Russia. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name before the official announcement was made.
Putin pulled his forces back from the Ukrainian border on Tuesday, yet said that Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in the country but hopes it doesn't have to. Putin declared that Western actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy and warned that any sanctions the West might place on Russia for its actions there will backfire.
Speaking from his residence outside Moscow, Putin said he still considers Yanukovych to be Ukraine's leader and hopes Russia won't need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
In Washington, the White House said the $1 billion loan guarantee was aimed at helping insulate Ukraine from reductions in energy subsidies. Russia provides a substantial portion of Ukraine's natural gas and U.S. officials said they are prepared to work with Kiev to reduce its dependence on those imports. The assistance is also meant to supplement a broader aid package from the International Monetary Fund.