A Russian naval ship passes fishermen in Sevastopol bay on Wednesday
A Russian naval ship passes fishermen in Sevastopol bay on Wednesday

The stand-off between Russia and the US over Ukraine reached its gravest point on Wednesday as the US and its allies warned Moscow that proceeding with Sunday’s Crimean independence referendum would bring reprisals.

Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council, said Russia had deployed more than 80,000 troops, up to 270 tanks and 140 combat aircraft near its border, creating the “threat of a full-scale invasion”.

The sabre-rattling came as John Kerry, US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, agreed to hold talks in London on Friday in an effort to avert a diplomatic rupture over the Crimean vote.

“[This] can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions,” said Mr Kerry.

President Barack Obama also met the interim Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, at the White House in a symbolic show of support. He promised the US and its allies would ensure that Russia paid “a cost” if it did not change course.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Russian defence ministry said it had allowed Ukraine to conduct an observation flight over Russian territory to disprove the claims about border troop deployments.

Belarus said it had requested the deployment of up to 15 extra Russian fighter jets after the Pentagon said it was sending 12 F-16s fighters from Italy to Poland.

A spokesman for the US military’s European command said the move was “a deliberate choice to demonstrate to our allies, as well as to our adversaries, that US commitments to our collective defence responsibilities are credible and remain in force”.

But European diplomats said there were no signs that Russia was standing down.

“De-escalation is not taking place, quite the contrary. What’s happening is consolidation,” one EU diplomat said.

Ambassadors in Brussels agreed a “framework” for sanctions that will allow EU foreign ministers, who meet on Monday, to target Russians who ordered the Crimea incursion.

The hardening of the west’s stand was delivered in a statement by the Group of Seven industrialised countries, who said the presence of Russian troops in Crimea and the precipitous timing of the referendum meant it would be illegal and have “no moral force”.

The G7 said: “The annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states.

“Should the Russian Federation take such a step, we will take further action, individually and collectively.”

Mr Kerry is meeting Mr Lavrov after the secretary of state declined an invitation at the weekend to travel to Moscow for talks.

The secretary of state remains “optimistic that the meeting will produce results”, said people familiar with the administration’s thinking. He has argued against toughening sanctions until he has a chance to sit down face to face with his Russian counterpart.

The US Senate foreign relations committee passed by 14 votes to 3 a bill including sanctions against Russian officials who had underined Ukraine’s sovereignty and also offering aid to Kiev. The full Senate may vote on the bill later this week.

The bill does not mention Iran-style banking sanctions but it does include measures to reform and increase funding to the International Monetary Fund, although this may be knocked out in the Republican-controlled House.

Mr Yatsenyuk said Kiev will not impose sanctions on Crimea after the weekend referendum, if it proceeds, and will continue to deliver water and electricity to the region.

Earlier in the day, General Philip Breedlove, the US air force officer who serves as Nato’s supreme commander, posted photos on the internet that he said made clear that the troops in Crimea were Russian, despite denials by Vladimir Putin, Russian president.

“After extensive review of multiple information sources we believe these are Russian military forces acting on clear orders to undermine Ukraine forces in Crimea,” Gen Breedlove wrote. “This conclusion . . . is based on deliberate and painstaking scrutiny of the many sources of data available to our professional military analysts.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Byrne in Brussels, Kathrin Hille in Moscow and Jan Cienski in Warsaw

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