A top U.S. diplomat on Wednesday warned Russia against deploying nuclear weapons in Crimea and said the United States and its allies would respond if the Kremlin opts to do so.
Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said such a move by Russia would be "extremely dangerous," though she did not specify what form a U.S. and allied response might take.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had previously told a state news agency on Monday that "Russia has every reason to dispose of its nuclear arsenal" on the peninsula that it annexed in March, following what international observers condemned as an illegal referendum.
"Crimea belongs to Ukraine," Nuland said at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event in response to a question. "Second of all, any effort to further militarize that region will be extremely dangerous and will not be unanswered by those of us who also live in that neighborhood."
Nuland noted that she worked on the Budapest Memorandums in 1994 that required Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to remove all nuclear weapons from their states in return for security guarantees from the United States. Although Russia was a signatory to those agreements, the Kremlin’s willingness to nuclearize a part of Ukrainian territory that it invaded and captured threatens to nullify them.
Nuland also spoke about the potential for imposing further sanctions on Russia in response to its ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. President Barack Obama has said he will sign a bipartisan bill that authorizes him to apply additional sanctions on Russia’s defense, energy, and banking industries, but the legislation does not require him to take the tougher actions. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest expressed reservations about deepening sanctions pressure on Russia without the support of Europe.
"The bill gives the administration authorization for a broad set of tools, but it also allows considerable flexibility to use those tools," Nuland said, declining to confirm whether Obama would push for the tougher sanctions.
Providing lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military also remains "under review," she said. The bill authorizes but does not require Obama to send $350 million in military equipment to Ukraine, including antitank weapons and surveillance drones.
"What’s most important is that the Russians be deterred in further ventures," she said.
Russia has transported about 500 pieces of additional military equipment to the separatists in Ukraine since the Minsk Agreement was signed, Nuland said. Those weapon shipments violate the deal that was supposed to broker a "ceasefire" between the pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces. The United Nations said this week that an average of 13 people a day have died in Ukraine since the agreement was reached in early September.
Nuland said the current sanctions on Russia "can be rolled back" if the Minsk provisions are implemented, including an order from the Kremlin to pull back its troops and arms in Ukraine and to close off the border from hostilities. Some experts have warned that Russia’s severe economic hardships, including a collapsing currency and declining oil revenue, could provoke President Vladimir Putin to be more aggressive in Ukraine as a way of tamping down domestic political pressures.
Nuland also pushed back against criticism by some analysts that the West is to blame for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. These critics say Western nations provoked Putin by pushing for NATO enlargement after the fall of the Soviet Union and not respecting Russian interests.
"There were no promises made to Russia that it would have a veto at any point to any American or European leader or other countries’ sovereign choice of alliance," she said. "Anybody who tells you otherwise doesn’t know the true situation."
Nuland noted that the United States has provided about $20 billion in assistance to Russia over the last two decades.
Additionally, Nuland sought to clarify reports from last winter that she handed out cookies to Ukrainian demonstrators protesting against now deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. Russian state media said the gift signaled that the United States was supporting a coup to topple Yanukovych’s government.
"They were sandwiches, not cookies," Nuland said. She also gave some to the Berkut police forces, "those poor 18, 19 year-old Ukrainian kids who had been ordered by their own president to move against their own mothers and grandmothers."
"The United States will never be shy about supporting efforts for more democracy, more popular choice, more enfranchisement, anywhere in the world," she said.