Ukraine situation is dire and worsening, U.S. official says

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Kiev, Ukraine (CNN) Eastern Ukraine is in a “dire” security situation, and Russia is failing “miserably” in its seriousness to negotiate an end to the crisis, a senior U.S. State Department official said Thursday.

The official, who spoke to CNN on board U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s plane en route to Kiev, also warned of a “grave acceleration of the fighting on the ground” in Ukraine.

The official said Russia is “failing the test miserably” as to whether it is serious about negotiations. The Russian people are “paying for this imperial adventure,” the official said.

Kerry is due to meet with Ukrainian leaders, including President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

His visit comes amid a worsening of the conflict between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine that is claiming a growing number of civilian lives.

French President Francois Hollande announced that both he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will also travel to Kiev on Thursday to meet with Poroshenko.

They will then go on to Moscow on Friday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kiev and its Western allies accuse Russia of fostering the conflict by sending military personnel and equipment over the border into Ukraine. Moscow denies the claims and says it supports a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

NATO considers new command and control units

As the diplomats shuttle back and forth, NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels, Belgium.

As they gathered, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ministers would decide on a new measure in response to the rising tensions to the alliance’s east: establishing command and control units in six eastern member nations.

“In Ukraine, violence is getting worse and the crisis is deepening. Russia continues to disregard international rules and to support the separatists with advanced weapons, training and forces,” said Stoltenberg.

The new proposal would mean setting up dedicated teams in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Poland, said NATO spokesman Tony White.

Each team would have 40 to 50 staff officers, half of them locals, in order to improve NATO training and facilities in each country.

“These units will make it easier to deploy NATO forces rapidly,” said Stoltenberg. “They will support collective defense planning. And help coordinate multinational exercises.”

Russia is unlikely to welcome the prospect of more NATO forces stationed close to its western border.

Putin last month called the Ukrainian army “a NATO legion” that has the geopolitical goal of containing Russia rather than defending Ukraine’s national interests, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency.

‘Defensive lethal aid’

It emerged this week that the United States is now considering sending lethal aid to help the Ukrainian government fend off attacks from pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine.

This assistance would come in the form of so-called defensive lethal aid, which could include anti-tank, anti-air and anti-mortar systems.

Asked if France would join the United States in providing such equipment to the Ukrainian military, Hollande said “the option of negotiation, of diplomacy, cannot be extended indefinitely.”

But the French President emphasized that first, both he and Merkel were working together toward a proposal they hope will be acceptable to all parties in the conflict.

“We want to develop a German and French negotiation document, along with Ukraine and also with Putin, he said.

“If we succeed, we will have avoided an escalation of the conflict. If we fail, and this hypothesis remains, what will be said? That France and Germany will have done everything they could do to take action to resolve the conflict.”

Urgently needed aid

Kerry announced Thursday that the U.S. government intends to provide $16.4 million in new humanitarian aid to help Ukrainians affected by the violence.

“The funding will be used to support the Ukrainian government’s response to the crisis caused by Russia’s aggressive actions and will also help alleviate the suffering of people in conflict-affected areas of eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk,” a State Department statement said.

“Many of these people are extremely vulnerable and unable to leave.”

The new aid will include shelter, blankets, bedding, warm clothing and other support, the statement said. It takes the total provided to Ukraine by the United States since the conflict broke out last spring to $38 million, it added.