Obama Condemns Violence in Ukraine

As violence spreads, the U.S. and Europe is considering sanctions on Ukrainian government

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AP Photo/ Pavlo Palamarchuk

Ukrainian protesters throw out and burn papers from prosecutor's headquarters in Lviv, western Ukraine, early Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. The violence on Tuesday was the worst in nearly three months of anti-government protests that have paralyzed Ukraine's capital, Kiev, in a struggle over the identity of a nation divided in loyalties between Russia and the West, and the worst in the country's post-Soviet history.

President Barack Obama condemned Wednesday in the “strongest terms” a bloody crackdown on protesters that spiraled out of control into the worst violence the country has seen since its independence from Russia in 1991.

“The U.S. condemns in strongest terms the violence,” the President said before meetings in Mexico. “We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible.” Obama urged the government to “show restraint,” and called on President Viktor Yanukovych not to use military force to deal with “issues that should be settled by civilians.” But he also said that protestors must “remain peaceful” and recognize that “violence is not the path.”

Obama, who is visiting Mexico to meet with Canadian and Mexican leaders, is expected to threaten Ukrainian leaders with sanctions if they do not halt the crackdown on protestors. The United States will coordinate with the European Union over what—if any—action will be taken, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One en route to the meeting.

The E.U. is looking at targeted sanctions, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy said in a statement Wednesday. “Our Ministers in the Foreign Affairs Council will at their meeting tomorrow examine targeted measures, such as financial sanctions and visa restrictions against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force,” he said.

The Obama administration has the authority to act unilaterally on some targeted sanctions, such as withdrawing and blocking visas, which it has already done, and freezing some funds. The State Department banned the 20 people in the Ukrainian government it deemed responsible for the violence this week from obtaining U.S. visas, a senior State Department official said Wednesday. The names of those banned were not released. The House and Senate Foreign Relations committees are looking into what legislation is needed, if any, for the administration to impose other types of sanctions. “While I believe that the Administration has the necessary authorities to take appropriate actions, the House of Representatives should also consider additional Congressional action, if necessary,” said Rep. Elliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. A senior Republican Senate aide told TIME on Wednesday that blanket sanctions against the entire country are not on the table.

“We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” Rhodes said. “We have a toolkit for doing that that includes sanctions.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter Wednesday that “no one wants” the country to “descend into chaos.”

Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said Wednesday they are working on legislation to sanction the Ukraine. “We have begun working together on legislation that would impose targeted sanctions on government officials and other persons who have committed, ordered, or materially supported acts of violence against peaceful citizens in Ukraine, or who are complicit in the rollback of Ukraine’s democracy,” said the senators, who visited Kiev together in December. “These sanctions should not, and will not, target the people or the country of Ukraine as a whole. Instead, they will be narrowly focused on those individuals who must be held accountable for violating human rights and undermining democracy. We remain in contact with the Administration and look forward to working together on this legislation.”

Obama is expected to consult congressional leaders on Wednesday to examine all options concerning Ukraine, Rhodes said.  “Events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision making,” Rhodes said. If, on the other hand, the government pulls back, releases prisoners and pursues dialogue with the opposition, “that would obviously factor into our calculus as well.”

Yanukovych and three opposition leaders met late Wednesday and came to a ceasefire agreement, according to a State Department official. Hailing the news as the first “glimmer of hope” in days, the official said, “there’s now a truce that’s been called aimed at ending the blood shed and stabilizing the situation.”

Still, the U.S. remains concerned that many senior Ukrainian military leaders “don’t seem to be picking up the phone,” a senior State Department official said. The military has thus far sat out the protests, though Yanukovych recently sacked the head of the military and his replacement takes the reins tonight. “We are concerned by the changing of the guard in the military tonight and hope that does not presage a change in that [neutral] stance,” the State official said.

More than 20 were killed and a thousand people were wounded in overnight fighting between riot police and protesters in Kiev and in at least eight provinces across the Ukraine. The protests began in November after Yanukovych rejected a wide-reaching trade deal with the European Union in favor of stronger ties with Russia. European Trade Commission Karen De Gucht told the Atlantic Council in Washington on Tuesday that that trade agreement “would very easily pass the test of [European] parliamentary scrutiny,” should it ever be ratified by the Ukraine and brought up for a vote. The violence exploded late Tuesday after Yanukovych halted what had been promising negotiations with the opposition to rewrite the country’s constitution to empower the parliament and weaken the presidency.