Skip to main content

U.S. talks tough, but options limited in Ukraine

By Elise Labott and Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 9:43 PM EST, Wed February 19, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Obama says he hopes a truce will give space to reach a political solution
  • NEW: He pushes for a unity government to pave the way for fair and free elections
  • NEW: Ukrainians should be able to "determine their own destiny," Obama adds
  • U.S. puts Ukrainians responsible for crackdown on visa ban list

Washington (CNN) -- The United States talked tough Wednesday about trying to halt escalating political violence in Ukraine, but analysts warned there was little that outside pressure could do, especially if the Ukrainian military gets involved on the side of the government cracking down on protesters.

President Barack Obama condemned the unrest that killed 26 people on Tuesday and began spreading Wednesday beyond Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with reports of protesters taking over government buildings in the nation's western region.

Obama said the United States expected the Ukrainian government to show restraint against peaceful protesters, and he warned there would be unspecified consequences for excessive action. He made a point of saying the Ukrainian military should stay out of it, as it has so far.

Later in the day -- after Ukraine's president and opposition leaders agreed to a truce and to fresh talks -- Obama said he hoped this development will "provide space for the sides to resolve their disagreements peacefully."

Insisting that Ukraine isn't a pawn on some "Cold War chessboard" with Russia, Obama said that he hopes a unity government will be formed to pave the way for "fair and free elections."

Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, clash with police in Independence Square on Wednesday, February 19. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have packed the square since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision on a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, clash with police in Independence Square on Wednesday, February 19. Thousands of anti-government demonstrators have packed the square since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision on a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.
Ukraine protests turn deadly
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Ukraine protests turn deadly Photos: Ukraine protests turn deadly
Death toll rising in Kiev protests
Ukraine sees deadliest day in standoff

"The situation that happened in Ukraine has to do with whether or not the people ... can determine their own destiny," he said.

Visa ban

Later, the United States issued a visa ban for 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government and others responsible for the violent crackdown in Kiev, a senior State Department official told reporters on a conference call.

However, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass told CNN that the United States and its European allies have limited options for impacting the situation on the ground in Ukraine.

"My own hunch is this is going to continue to escalate," Haass said, adding that the main question was whether the military would side with the government by getting involved or back the protesters by remaining in barracks.

In what the senior State Department official called "a glimmer of hope," the Ukrainian government and the opposition announced a truce Wednesday night to allow for negotiations to restart with the aim at stabilizing the situation.

Earlier, Obama said while attending talks in Mexico with the leaders of Canada and the host country that "we're going to be watching closely and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters."

Ukraine's military a focus

Thousands of demonstrators have packed Independence Square in Kiev since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych reversed a decision to sign a trade deal with the European Union and instead turned toward Russia.

The unrest intensified after an anti-protest law went into effect. On Tuesday, the street clashes escalated dramatically, leaving 26 people dead and buildings on fire.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Yanukovych on Tuesday night to express "grave concern" over the crisis.

A readout of the conversation released by the White House said Biden told the Ukrainian leader that "the United States condemns violence by any side, but that the government bears special responsibility to de-escalate the situation."

Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated Biden's message on Wednesday, saying Yanukovych can choose either dialogue and compromise or violence and mayhem.

CNN reporter caught in police offensive
Fires continue amid Ukrainian protests
Scale of violence grows in Ukraine

"It is in his hands to decide what the future of the Ukraine and the future hopes of his people will be, and we hope very much that violence will be avoided and compromise will be found," Kerry said.

Wednesday night, Ukraine military forces moved into defensive positions around military bases and weapons depots across the country, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the latest intelligence.

The move was considered as defensive to secure facilities and weapons, and so far only involved military personnel rather than any widespread movement of armored vehicles, according to the defense official who spoke on condition of not being identified.

"We are encouraged the Ukraine military has not been brought into this crisis and we urge them to remain on the sidelines," said Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren.

If the Ukraine military got involved in the fighting, "that would have consequences for our defense relationship," Warren added.

Ukraine cites terrorists for trouble

While Yanukovych's government has received most of the blame, Ukrainian officials blamed protesters for the escalating unrest.

Security chief Oleksander Yakimenko accused protesters of looting weapons and ammunition from government offices and announced a nationwide "anti-terrorist operation."

According to senior U.S. administration officials, such language by Ukraine signals a hardening government position against the protesters.

In a later conference call with reporters, the senior State Department official -- who spoke on condition of not being identified -- expressed concern over the replacement of Ukraine's military armed forces chief. No reason was given for the dismissal of Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana.

Russia, which has major historical and economic ties to the former Soviet territory, accuses the United States of playing a role in the widespread protests. The senior State Department official denied that on Wednesday, saying "we completely reject their notion that we have been interfering."

The visa bans announced Wednesday followed an earlier move in January when existing visas of some Ukrainians were revoked over previous unrest, the State Department official said.

This time, the 20 Ukrainians -- none of them from the military -- now banned from getting new U.S. visas "represent the full chain of command that we consider responsible for ordering security forces to move against" protesters on Tuesday, the official added.

Sanctions talk

Other sanctions in coordination with the European Union also could occur, according to the official, who declined to provide further details.

France also has threatened sanctions against Ukraine over the government's crackdown, with President Francois Hollande calling the protest violence "unspeakable, unacceptable, intolerable acts."

The Obama administration has come under increasing criticism for its foreign policy as talks have faltered on halting Syria's civil war, which left nearly 5,000 people dead in the last three weeks in a particularly violent stretch of the almost three-year conflict.

On Sunday, veteran GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the U.S. policy in Syria an "abysmal failure and a disgraceful one."

Ukraine protesters stand ground as European, U.S. leaders discuss sanctions

Explainer: What and who are behind Ukraine's political crisis?

John Kerry: United States, EU stand with Ukraine's people

CNN's Jake Tapper, Barbara Starr, Dana Davidsen, Chelsea J. Carter, Greg Botelho and Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Donetsk's neediest line up for food handouts. There are long queues at the bus station as people try to leave town. There are no banks left open.
updated 5:25 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Barking overwhelms the thud of artillery fire. An animal shelter is crammed with 1,000 dogs, many orphans of the conflict with owners who have fled or been killed.
updated 3:51 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Reza Sayah looks into why thousands of Ukrainians have left their old lives to volunteer to fight.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva speaks to The New Republic's Linda Kinstler about Putin's motives with Ukraine and China.
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
updated 5:58 PM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The Commander of NATO forces in Europe says Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian troops -- all heading into Ukraine.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT