Just before midnight Wednesday, Ukraine’s president declared a “truce” in his nation, as well as the start of negotiations aimed at not only preventing further bloodshed but forging a lasting peace.
The statement — agreed upon with leaders of Ukraine’s three top opposition parties — offered a welcome respite from the violence and acrimony emanating from the tumultuous Eastern European nation.
Still, there have been talks before. And there was a breakthrough as recently as four days ago, when protesters agreed to move out of Kiev’s City Hall and unblock downtown streets. Then it collapsed in a bloody mess Tuesday on the streets of Kiev.
But will this attempt be different?
One thing that has changed is the scale of the violence: Authorities say at least 26 people — protesters and police alike — were killed Tuesday, in fierce clashes centered around Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square.
The scale of international outrage also has changed. After weeks of behind-the-scenes work and general calls for political solutions, Western leaders especially ramped up their pressure on Wednesday.
As U.S. President Barack Obama said, “We’re going to be watching closely.”
He and other Western leaders offered pointed remarks — and floated possible sanctions — against Ukraine’s embattled government for its part in the recent violence.
“We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible,” Obama said, “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.”
Nearly 7,000 miles away from where Obama spoke in Mexico, an eery, tense calm descended over central Kiev overnight Wednesday.
Truce or not, protesters showed no indication that they were going anywhere.
A ring of fire continued to burn along barricades around their camp in the city center. Their cries against President Viktor Yanukovych also continued — accusing him of scuttling an European Union trade pact to cozy up with Russia, resisting reforms to curb his power and stubbornly, heavy-handedly dealing with the opposition.
As to the Ukrainian government, while security forces held back Wednesday, its officials did not.
In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara said an opposition march Tuesday “ended with massive riots and aggressive and excessive attacks against the Ukrainian police.”
The head of Ukraine’s security service was even more forceful, accusing protesters of taking over government offices nationwide and looting 1,500 weapons and 100,000 rounds of ammunition, among other misdeeds.
“These are concrete acts of terror,” Oleksander Yakimenko said in a statement announcing an anti-terrorism operation apparently targeting protesters. “Radical and extremist groups are now a real threat.”
Ukraine’s top military man replaced
One man who won’t be part of that anti-terrorism campaign is Ukraine’s armed forces chief.
Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana has been replaced, according to a statement Wednesday on the president’s website.
No reason was given for the dismissal of Zamana, who according to his official bio started in the Soviet military then rose through the ranks of Ukraine’s military before getting the top job in February 2012.
Still, in a nation on the edge, one must pay attention anytime the top military official is suddenly removed.
U.S. General Philip Breedlove, the military commander for NATO — the 23-nation alliance including not just Western Europe and the United States, but Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Romania — called “upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialog (sic) with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution.”
In his CNN interview Wednesday, Ukraine’s foreign minister insisted that — despite what he characterized as protesters’ provocations — police have “strong instructions” to avoid using “offensive means.”
And Kozhara refuted reports that the army, whoever leads it, has been authorized to fire on protesters.
“Under no conditions (will) the Ukrainian army … be used in resolving this political crisis,” the minister added.
Sanctions threatened; U.S. won’t issue visas to 20 Ukrainians
After some well-reported infighting about how engaged they’d been in the crisis, Western officials were vocal on Wednesday, not just condemning the violence but threatening action.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland are set to to travel to Kiev on Thursday to survey the situation, before briefing their European Union colleagues in Brussels. After that, they and their U.S. allies could impose sanctions against Yanukovych’s government — especially if there is even more violence.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso vowed European officials will “respond to the any deterioration on the ground” with “targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that Yanukovych must decide “between protecting the people that he serves — all of the people — … versus violence and mayhem.”
“We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends (in) Europe and elsewhere in order to create the environment for compromise,” Kerry said.
Later Wednesday, a senior State Department official told reporters that the United States wouldn’t issue visas for 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government and others responsible for Tuesday’s violent crackdown on protesters.
Calling the violence from both government forces and protesters “completely unacceptable,” British Prime Minister David Cameron challenged Ukraine’s leaders to make the public’s safety their first priority.
“President Yanukovych has a particular responsibility to pull back government forces and de-escalate the situation,” Cameron said.
Geopolitics, power plays and personalities
The situation began in November, when the opposition hit the streets angry about Yanukovych’s backpedaling from a trade pact with the European Union. That move and Russia’s offer the following month to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and slash the price Kiev pays for its gas all played into the storyline that what’s happening in the divided Ukraine as a proxy for battles between Russia and the West.
Yet the dispute extends beyond international affairs. It’s also about the structure and control of Ukraine, as indicative of the opposition pressing for constitutional reforms shifting powers from the president to the parliament.
The government’s response to the dissent — including a sweeping, if short-lived, anti-protest law in January — further inflamed the opposition.
Tuesday’s violence, ironically, came two days after a seeming breakthrough in on-again, off-again talks as demonstrators agreed to leave Kiev’s City Hall and unblock streets downtown in return for the government dropping charges against those arrested amid the political unrest.
But things fell apart quickly and violently.
Riot police plowed into the crowd with water cannons, stun grenades and night sticks. Some video even showed armored personnel carriers on the Kiev streets, charging toward barricades.
But protesters fought back. CNN reporters, for instance, saw some of them clawing paving stones from the streets and firing Molotov cocktails attached to fireworks from an improvised air cannon.
They also set fire to the headquarters of the ruling Party of Regions, than an opposition headquarters — the Trade Unions House — was also smoldering.
Beyond politics and geopolitics, there’s also the possibility that personalities and pride play a part in the discord.
Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said there was “no discussion” during his face-to-face meeting Tuesday night with Yanukovych.
The boxer-turned-politician said the President demanded the protesters back off first. Klitschko threw the demand back at him. “I told Yanukovych this,” he said. “How can we negotiate when there is blood being spilled?”
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