Tougher sanctions threatened: US, Germany warn Putin not to disrupt Ukraine's May election

The Associated Press

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel walk to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 1, 2014, after their joint news conference in the Rose Garden. Obama and Merkel are putting on a display of trans-Atlantic unity against an assertive Russia, even as sanctions imposed by Western allies seem to be doing little to change Russian President Vladimir Putin's reasoning on Ukraine. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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In that speech, she said the free-trade deal could help open the way for American natural gas supplies to Europe. About one-third of Europe's energy now comes from Russia, and a majority of that supply passes through Ukraine, making it even more vulnerable.

The crisis over Ukraine, Merkel said, "could have a very positive effect" in promoting a much quicker agreement on the free-trade agreement. Current U.S. regulations prohibit oil and gas exports to countries with which the U.S. does not have free-trade deals.

Meanwhile, the European Union announced it would hold talks with Ukraine and Russia later this month on the price of natural gas, in an attempt to avoid any disruption in supplies. Moscow recently hiked the price of gas shipped to Ukraine and threatened to limit deliveries if Kiev does not meet the new price and repay a $3.5 billion debt.

The seemingly unraveling situation in eastern Ukraine topped the Merkel-Obama agenda and infused their roughly four hours of meetings with a heightened sense of urgency.

"What happened in Ukraine, what happened on the Crimean Peninsula — well, the postwar order has been put into question," said Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany amid the chill of the Cold War.

Ukrainians are expected to go to the polls on May 25 to select a replacement for President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in February following widespread protests by Ukrainians miffed by his move to push Ukraine further into Russia's orbit. Western officials fear Russia may seek to stir more unrest ahead of the election so that it can later cast doubt on its validity if the outcome isn't to Moscow's liking.

Russia has sought to portray Ukraine's interim government as illegitimate, and the West is looking to May's election to re-establish Kiev's credibility. The U.S. and the EU accuse Russia's government of being the driving force behind pro-Russian insurgents stoking unrest in Ukraine — a charge that Moscow disputes.

But with eastern Ukraine mired in chaos, and Ukraine's government admittedly unable to oust insurgents there, it's unclear whether conditions exist to hold a credible election. For Obama and Merkel, proving Russia's involvement may be harder than it would be if Russian tanks were to start rolling over the border into Ukraine.

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Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, James Heintz in Moscow and Steven R. Hurst in Washington contributed to this report.

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Reach Josh Lederman at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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