The US and the European Union will hold their first four-way talks with Ukraine and Russia on Thursday to address a worsening crisis, although US officials have set low expectations for the meeting, still smarting from a slew of failures in past weeks.
With Ukraine increasingly threatened with a split between its Russian-speaking east and EU-leaning west, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it was hoped the talks could help de-escalate tensions that have risen markedly in the past 24 hours.
Kerry will sit down with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his Ukrainian counterpart Andriy Deshchytsya and the chief diplomat of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, for what are likely to be prickly talks.
Observers are skeptical about the chances of success.
The US has backed Kiev's right to quell separatist uprisings that started in the Crimean peninsula and have since spread to other parts of Ukraine, setting the stage for the most serious rupture in West-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Ukraine was now on the verge of civil war after the Kiev government sent in the army against pro-Moscow separatists.
Washington's priorities include trying to get Russia to demobilize pro-Kremlin militias which have seized control of government buildings in towns and cities in Ukraine's southeast, although Putin has denied Moscow has any links to them.
But Psaki has made it clear that the US and the EU are prepared to slap Moscow with tougher sanctions if no headway is made.
"Not only do we anticipate additional sanctions at some point, we're preparing additional steps," she said, adding Kerry had spoken Tuesday with his French, German, British and EU counterparts.
Lavrov and Deshchytsya will Thursday have "the first opportunity to engage . . . at the same table, with the EU, with the United States," Psaki said.
"We feel there should always be an opportunity and an opening for diplomacy," she insisted, saying an "off-ramp" still existed for Moscow.
'Whack the hell'
Analyst David Marples held out few hopes, "given that the two sides are so far apart."
"Ukraine's attitude is that there are no separatists in eastern Ukraine and that in fact the problems have been started by Russian infiltrators . . . and that really this constitutes an attack on Ukraine from the outside," Marples, director for Ukraine studies at the University of Alberta, told AFP.
While the interim leaders in Kiev have said they would agree to decentralize some places in the east such as Donetsk, they remain opposed to federalizing the country, believing "Russia's got no right to tell a sovereign state what its structure should be."
Moscow meanwhile saw both the US and EU as interfering in the "affairs of Ukraine to try to draw it away from Russia's orbit," Marples said.
He said that Putin was trying to keep all his options open ahead of the May 25th presidential elections.
David Kramer, president of the non-governmental Freedom House, said it was a big mistake for Washington to wait until the Geneva talks to impose more sanctions on Moscow.
"Whack the hell out of them," he told a seminar at the McCain Institute think-tank.
"I have zero hope that this is going to work out, and to not hit the Kremlin with more sanctions before Thursday is an enormous mistake," Kramer said.
"Putin thinks he's winning," he said.
"He's got no interest in compromising, in showing any room for negotiation, it's going to an enormous waste of time with a foreign minister who's demonstrated he's got zero influence over what's happening."
The US and EU have already unveiled coordinated sanctions, targeting a slew of Russian officials close to Putin, as well as the separatist leaders who engineered Crimea's split from Ukraine last month.
Psaki warned new sanctions could cut deeper, suggesting Washington may be ready to target Russia's key mining, energy and financial sectors — after the talks.
Analysts say, however, that sanctions have had little effect.
"Putin's prepared for these kind of sacrifices," said Marples.