The European Union moved toward freezing the assets of Ukraine’s most powerful officials and denying them travel visas after a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Kiev left at least 25 dead and stirred fears of a civil war.
The deadliest clashes in the three-month standoff between pro-western protesters and the allies of Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych jolted European leaders out of rhetorical denunciations of violence and pleas for calm. EU foreign ministers will meet tomorrow to weigh “all possible options,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in an e-mailed statement.
Such acts of “violence, brutality and repression” as were witnessed in Ukraine are “intolerable,” French President Francois Hollande said at a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris today. “Those who committed such acts, who are preparing to commit more such acts, must know that they will be subject to sanctions.”
With 45 million Ukrainians caught in the middle, European appeals for democracy have run up against Russia’s determination to remain the arbiter of Ukraine’s fate, offering a reprise of the Cold War two decades after it ended. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters separately in Paris, said the U.S. was discussing “the possibility of sanctions or other steps” with allies “to create the environment for compromise.”
“We can’t just not intervene because we don’t want to upset the Russians,” said Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “Think about the poor Ukrainians still in the streets fighting, they’re looking for some sort of signal that the EU is going to activate itself. We need to stand up to Moscow, simple as that.”
Merkel, describing the images from Kiev as “shocking,” said there is “total German-French unity” on Ukraine. Foreign ministers meeting in Brussels tomorrow will discuss “what specific potential sanctions should be implemented in order to make clear that we’re serious this political process needs to begin again,” she said.
The EU has had mixed success with sanctions against leaders and top businesspeople in states that it accuses of flouting human rights. Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbor, hasn’t been tempted toward more democracy by international sanctions against its president, Alexander Lukashenko.
The blacklisting of Ukraine’s ruling elite and the wealthy oligarchs that support it may be more effective because they cultivate western ties and have put money in European banks, said Tim Ash, chief emerging-market economist at Standard Bank Group Ltd. in London.
“This will impact on their ability to finance their operations, and it will make them that much more dependent on Russian banks,” Ash said by e-mail. That “will make them very uncomfortable,” he said.
The tug of war over Ukraine began Nov. 21 when Yanukovych spurned a proposed EU trade deal, instead taking up Russia’s offer of a $15 billion loan and the promise of cheaper gas. The embrace of Moscow brought protesters out onto the streets of the capital Kiev, turning Independence Square into a pro-European campground.
Yanukovych’s security services failed to scatter the demonstrators in an armed intervention last night. Protesters dug in today with police on the other side of burning barricades, and violence erupted in other cities in the largely pro-EU western Ukraine.
Russia blamed Yanukovych’s opponents for starting the violence and European leaders for tolerating it. EU governments “refuse to recognize that all responsibility for radical actions lies with the opposition,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on its website.
The renewed confrontations came after Yanukovych refused to amend the constitution to lessen his grip on power. Televised scenes of street warfare prompted the most reluctant EU governments to give up their opposition to sanctions.
Kerry said that the French, German and Polish foreign ministers will travel to Kiev tomorrow to “gather the latest information” on the ground before heading to Brussels.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt endorsed a firm approach. A week after saying the EU is “primarily in the carrots business, not the sticks business,” Bildt said on Twitter that Yanukovych “has blood on his hands.”
For Anatoli Boko, 64, a scientist from Kiev who was on Independence Square today overlooking a trades-union building still burning at midday, the EU and Germany have only disappointed so far.
“Merkel is saying she and the EU will do everything they can to help us, but that’s just empty talk,” Boko said in an interview. “For us, this is a one-way street. We either win this war here or it’s all over.”