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POLITICS: PennAve

Crisis in Ukraine distracts Obama foreign policy team ahead of Asia trip

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,John Kerry,Russia,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Asia,Foreign Policy,Ukraine

Nearly one week before President Obama's latest multi-country tour through Asia, a crisis in the Ukraine is again stealing the administration's foreign policy focus as pro-Russian militants ignore a deadline set by Kiev to withdraw from towns throughout the eastern part of the country.

Russian officials are denying that the militants occupying buildings in eastern towns are acting on orders from Moscow, but U.S. officials say the sieges have all the telltale signs of the actions taken in Crimea just a few weeks ago.

Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov Sunday night threatened to begin an anti-terrorist campaign Sunday but the West is warning Kiev not to order any shots to be fired because that would give thousands of Russian troops gathered at the border an excuse to invade.

Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Ukraine's threats to use force to kick out what he argued were pro-Russian separatists are criminal and said the West now has the responsibility to prevent civil war in the Ukraine.

The U.N. Security Council Sunday night called an emergency meeting in which Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting planned for Thursday among his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union aimed at resolving the crisis may be too little too late.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, directly blamed the Russians for escalating the situation.

"The fact is that many of the armed units that we've seen were outfitted in bulletproof vests, camouflage uniforms with insignia removed," she said. "These armed units ... raised Russian and separatist flags over seized buildings and have called referendums and union with Russia. We know who is behind this."

As the crisis in the Ukraine mounts, Vice President Joe Biden will travel to Kiev Tuesday for talks as the Obama administration considers how to respond. The only action under serious consideration is whether to levy more sanctions against Russia - this time against economic sectors such as energy and mining in addition to freezing assets and banning visas of individual Russians close to President Vladimir Putin.

Obama's foreign policy team had hoped to spend the week preparing for a seven-day, four-country tour the president plans to make to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines from April 22 to April 29.

This week is also an important time for both Christians and Jews. Obama will spend Monday hosting an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House and Tuesday, he and first lady Michelle Obama will mark the beginning of Passover with a Seder at the White House with friends and staff.

On Wednesday, Obama and Biden will travel to Leetsdale, Pa., for an event on the economy, and on Thursday he plans to welcome the Wounded Warrior Project's Soldier Ride, a cycling event aimed at helping injured servicemen restore their physical and emotional well-being, to the White House.

On Friday, Obama will meet with the national commander of the American Legion, as well as welcome the U.S. Naval Academy football team to the White House to present them with the 2013 Commander in Chief's trophy.

This story is based in part on wire reports.

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