Violence gripped the streets of Kiev Thursday, hours after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition forces agreed to negotiate an end to the bloodshed, and the United States and European Union moved to implement sanctions on senior Ukrainian officials.
Accounts of how the flare-up began and its effects vary, but the opposition party website puts the death toll from Thursday at more than 60, according to NBC News. Ukraine’s Health Ministry reports that 67 people have died since the clashes turned violent earlier this week.
In a statement Thursday, the White House said it was “outraged” to see images of Ukrainian forces firing automatic weapons on the protesters, and called on Yanukovych to withdraw his security forces.
“The use of force will not resolve the crisis,” the statement read. “The United States will work with our European allies to hold those responsible for violence accountable and to help the Ukrainian people get a unified and independent Ukraine back on the path to a better future.”
Yanukovych claims the fragile truce struck Wednesday collapsed after opposition leaders started an offensive. In a statement, the Ukrainian Presidential Administration said the agreement to return to dialogue was merely a “manoeuvre to buy time” for militants to “act in organised armed groups, including sniper guns, and shoot to kill,” NBC News reported. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry says protesters captured 67 police troops.
But opposition leader Vitali Klitschko continues to blame the intensifying crisis on Yanukovych’s government, and called for law enforcement and military officials to refuse “illegal orders.” On Thursday, acting interior minister Vitaly Zakharschenko authorized police to arm themselves with combat weapons, which he said would "be used in accordance with the law."
“Stay with [the] people! Do not carry out criminal orders of government, against which the whole country rebelled,” Klitschko said on his website, according to a translation from NBC News. He also called on Yanukovych to announce an early presidential election, which as of now, is scheduled to take place next year.
Thursday’s violence exploded in spite of attempts from Western leaders to mediate. Foreign ministers from Germany, France, and Poland concluded a 5-hour meeting with Yanukovych just prior to an emergency session in the Ukrainian Parliament. The foreign ministers planned to meet with opposition leaders next.
Meanwhile in Brussels, the 28-nation European Union agreed to impose sanctions -- including asset freezes and travel bans -- against the Ukrainian government. The United States had already restricted visas on 20 Ukrainian officials involved in the crackdown, a senior U.S. official in the State Department said, and the sanctions could be strengthened further if the violence continued to escalate.
How did we get here?
Ukrainians have been protesting since Nov. 21, when Yanukovych refused a deal called the Eastern Partnership Program that would have given the country preferential access to the E.U. market. Instead, the Ukrainian leader opted to accept a multi-billion dollar loan from Moscow and discounts on natural gas.
Russia has been aggressively pushing its Eurasian Customs Union on former Soviet satellites as an alternative to trade and political associations with the West. President Vladimir Putin sees the Eurasian union as essential to his legacy.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has been deeply divided culturally, linguistically, and politically between those who want to see the country take on a more Western identity and those who want to maintain ties to Moscow. Yanukovych hails from the Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, and he reportedly did not even speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s.
The protest, which began as a peaceful demonstration, intensified at the end of the November when authorities sent in riot police to confront the crowd. Things got worse after the new year when the government pushed a package of laws through Parliament that essentially criminalized protesting. The prime minister resigned shortly afterward, and the contentious anti-protest law was repealed.
But opposition to Yanukovych dates back to long before November. In 2004, Yanukovych was blocked from assuming the presidential office he won under wide suspicions of fraud in what became known as the “Orange Revolution.” That uprising ushered in pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, but his attempts to align Ukraine with E.U. and NATO fell short due to divided public opinion.
In 2010, Yanukovych won the presidency again.
How are world leaders responding?
The United States, which had advocated for sanctions earlier, has urged the Ukrainian government to pull back riot police and called on Russia to assist in reducing tensions.
“We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble and speak freely about their interests without fear of repression,” said President Obama Wednesday, ahead a meeting with Mexican President Pena Nieto. “We’ve also said we expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful, and we’ll be monitoring very closely the situation, recognizing that with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line.”
Russian leaders, however, remained defiant, and blamed the intensifying crisis on the West.
“The West and Western politicians carry much responsibility for this ,” the chairmen for international relations of the Russian Duma, Alexei Pushkov, told Interfax news agency Wednesday. “They have constantly put pressure on the Ukrainian authorities to carry out order and allowed the ultra-radical organisations which are shooting at the police, the special forces and are leading the situation [in the country] towards civil war.”
On Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Moscow would continue to cooperate with Ukraine.
“At the same time,” he added, according to a translation from NBC NEws, “we need our partners to keep up and the current Ukrainian authorities to be legitimate and effective, so that no one wiped their feet on them like on a doormat.”
What happens next?
The EU’s 28 foreign ministers met in Brussels Thursday and agreed to impose sanctions against the Ukrainian government.
“The decision is to proceed very rapidly, in the next hours, to a visa ban and asset freeze on those who have committed the violence,” Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said to reporters as she left the meeting.
Despite condemnations from Western leaders, however, the danger still exists that Yanukovych will sic military personnel on protesters, whom officials have often painted as terrorists. If that happens, it could lead to an all-out civil war.
“I strongly urge the Ukrainian government to refrain from further violence. If the military intervenes against the opposition, Ukraine’s ties with NATO will be seriously damaged,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement.