Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lashed out at U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other Western officials on February 26 over threats to impose further sanctions against Moscow if it does not alter its conduct in Ukraine.
Lavrov said he believes talk of additional sanctions is meant to distract attention from the need to implement a deal on a cease-fire and steps toward peace in eastern Ukraine that was agreed on February 12 in Minsk.
He spoke after Kerry told U.S. lawmakers on February 25 that "neither Russia nor the forces it is supporting have come close to complying with their commitments" under the deal, which is aimed to end a war that has killed more than 5,600 people since April.
"As for the declarations by Western officials, including John Kerry and [European Council President] Donald Tusk, who have threatened new sanctions, I think this is easy to explain: They are trying to whip up hysteria and draw attention away from the need to implement the Minsk agreements," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow.
He said such remarks reflected "a lack of desire" in "the United States and the EU to achieve what we agreed upon in Minsk on February 12."
Western officials say it is Moscow and the Russian-backed separatists holding parts of eastern Ukraine who have failed to implement the cease-fire.
Kerry accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of destabilizing Ukraine through "land grabs," and said: "We are poised yet to do another round [of sanctions] potentially, depending on what happens with [the cease-fire] in these next few days.
Immediately after the cease-fire was agreed, the rebels ignored it in order to continue an offensive and take the strategic town of Debaltseve, a rail junction between the separatist-held provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk, from government forces.
Fighting has subsided since then, and the Ukrainian military said on February 25 that no deaths had been reported at the front for the first time since the cease-fire was to enter into force on February 15.
But there was still no confirmation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of a pullback of heavy weapons from the front tline -- another key provision of the deal reached in Minsk.
Kyiv and Western governments believe Russia wants to weaken Ukraine and keep it out of NATO by maintaining a "frozen conflict" in the east for years to come.
They fear Putin and the rebels couldpush to seize a swath of territory stretching from Donetsk to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow illegally annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
Kerry told told the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. House of Representatives: "In Luhansk, and Donetsk, and now in Debaltseve, he [Putin] has empowered, encouraged, and facilitated directly land grabs in order to try to destabilize Ukraine itself."
He said that "if failure continues, there will be further consequences -- consequences that would place added strains on Russia's weakened economy."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also said on February 25 that Moscow would face more European Union sanctions if the separatists attack the Kyiv-controlled strategic port of Mariupol.
Top U.S. officials have lashed out at Putin and his ministers in recent days as the fighting has continued in Ukraine, with Kerry on Tuesday directly accusing Russian leaders of lying "to my face" over the conflict.
First Day Without Fatalities
Asked if she believed Putin's assertions that he wanted peace in Ukraine, national security adviser Susan Rice retorted: "How dumb do I look?"
"No. In all seriousness, no. One cannot accept Vladimir Putin at his word because his actions have belied his words repeatedly, particularly in the context of Ukraine," Rice told PBS television.
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, the first day without fatalities was reported since the cease-fire came into effect on February 15.
"Over the past day, one soldier was wounded but there were no dead," Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists in Kyiv. The rebels also reported no deaths on their side.
But the OSCE mission to Ukraine said it could still not confirm a pull-back of heavy weapons from the frontline.
Rebels have claimed they were withdrawing artillery, rocket launchers and tanks from some areas, and journalists saw a column of howitzer guns being driven along a road near the separatist stronghold of Donetsk.
OSCE monitors said the warring sides had not provided the information needed to determine what, if any, arms withdrawals have occurred.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, in an interview with CNN on February 25, accused OSCE monitors of "refusing" to observe the withdrawal of heavy weaponry by rebels in the Donetsk region.
But the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Ilkka Kanerva said the separatists continued to impose restrictions on the monitors' movements.
Kanerva said in a statement that he was "profoundly disturbed" by the rebels' "continuing refusal to grant unlimited, safe access to OSCE monitors on the ground in Ukraine and their violations of the Minsk Package of Measures."
Ukraine has warned that it will not carry out an arms pull-back until a full and "comprehensive" cease-fire is observed and has accused Russia of continuing to send military hardware in to bolster the rebels.
Meanwhile, top U.S. defense leaders told Congress that the Obama administration is still debating whether to provide lethal defensive arms to Ukraine.
They expressed concern that such aid would only escalate Russia's military campaign there.
U.S. General Philip Breedlove, the top NATO commander, told the House Armed Services Committee that he has laid out military options the administration could consider for Ukraine, ranging from sending small arms to more sophisticated weapons that would take longer to arrive and require extensive training.
Breedlove and Christine Wormuth, defense undersecretary for policy, told lawmakers they are worried most that Russia might move on to destabilize non-NATO countries such as Montenegro or Moldova and expand its military assault into other portions of Ukraine.
Russia used troops and a referendum to seize control of Crimea after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv in February 2014 following months of huge protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark agreement with the European Union and tighten ties with Moscow instead.
In a sign of the damage the war has inflicted on Ukraine's economy, the central bank on February 25 imposed a temporary ban on purchases of foreign currencies, in an attempt to prop up the troubled hryvnya currency, which has lost some 70 percent of its value in the past year.
The ban should have been in effect from February 25 to February 27, but was reversed later in the day after criticism from Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa, and BBC