KRAMATORSK, Ukraine -- Top diplomats from Ukraine and Russia will meet today for the first time since clashes erupted in Ukraine's restive east, accompanied by U.S. and European Union counterparts poised to impose new sanctions if talks fail.
On the eve of the four-way session in Geneva, President Barack Obama vowed that Russia will face increasing economic penalties unless President Vladimir Putin retreats from supporting separatist militias in Ukraine and withdraws Russian troops from the border.
"Putin's decisions are not just bad for Ukraine; over the long term, they're going to be bad for Russia," Mr. Obama told CBS News in an interview Wednesday night. He said Russia's economy already is weighed down by uncertainty created by the Ukraine confrontation and by the prospect of tougher sanctions.
The Geneva session will allow the United States to test whether Russia is serious about a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. If not, U.S. officials have raised the prospect of sanctions targeted at more of what they call Mr. Putin's cronies and possibly at entire sectors of the Russian economy, from energy to banking. Visa bans and asset freezes the United States and EU imposed on individuals already have had an impact.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki this week said the Obama administration is considering measures that target sectors "such as financial services, energy, metals and mining, engineering and defense."
Ahead of the Geneva talks, Ukrainian authorities used armed force this week for the first time since taking power in February, in an effort to regain control from armed separatists in its eastern Donetsk region. While government forces retook an airfield near Kramatorsk two days ago that the government said was occupied by armed "extremists" operating under Russian orders, their efforts in the region stalled Wednesday. The government sent armored vehicles, only to have some of them seized by pro-Russian activists who also disarmed a number of soldiers.
"The guys don't want any escalation," activist leader Vadim Chernyakov told reporters. "They had an order to come to Kramatorsk. They should be praised for the fact that they didn't use weapons against the people."
About 500 pro-Russian separatists on Wednesday attacked a Ukrainian military base in the eastern city of Mariupol with guns and Molotov cocktails, according to TV 5. The Ukrainian channel said 12 people were hurt, without providing details.
As nearby countries such as the Baltic nations worry about security, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization vowed to beef up defenses and upgrade contingency plans. "We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday in Brussels after the officials of the 28-member alliance approved the changes.
Mr. Obama said NATO will stand by its member countries, and that Mr. Putin knows that United States and allied forces are "significantly superior" to Russia's. "They're not interested in any kind of military confrontation with us," he said in the CBS interview.
The Geneva meeting of foreign ministers will bring together Ukraine's Andriy Deshchytsia and Russia's Sergei Lavrov as well as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief.
The outcome depends on "whether the Russians come prepared to try to defuse the crisis," said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, said, "The Ukrainian crisis is getting closer to its culmination, when the last chance to rescue the situation is highly professional diplomacy." The deal needs to include rights for all Ukrainians, guarantees on Russian gas prices for Ukraine and gas transit to Europe, a nonaligned status for the country and Russia's recognition of the May 25 presidential elections, Mr. Lukyanov said.