The deployment and use of Berkut snipers to attack protesters in Kiev got a much swifter reaction from the White House than any other Ukraine development thus far. Jay Carney expressed outrage on behalf of the US over the use of deadly force on demonstrators, and demanded a withdrawal of security forces from the conflict:
The White House on Thursday called for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to remove his security forces from the scene of protests in Kiev — its most forceful statement to date on the quickly escalating conflict. …
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Yanukovych’s forces have gone too far.
“We are outraged by the images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people,” Carney said. “We urge President Yanukovych to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kyiv and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully.”
The death toll has risen to at least 50 today alone, after the supposed truce collapsed almost as soon as it was announced. The problem for Viktor Yanukovich might be that recalling his troops will be more difficult than it looks. Dozens have been captured by the demonstrators and are apparently being held as hostages now, while the question of who’s sniping whom may be more complicated, too:
The Interior Ministry said 67 of its troops were captured by demonstrators. The captives were taken to a government building occupied by the opposition, news agencies reported. On a hill south of Independence Square, the protest movement’s epicenter also known as the Maidan, the parliament and cabinet buildings were evacuated.
Although the fighting Thursday morning fell short of developing into a full-scale battle, videos indicated that some protesters have sniper rifles, and police were shown shooting automatic weapons.
The Interior Ministry announced that it was issuing military-grade weapons to the police, while saying they were to be used only in accordance with the law.
Will the Yanukovich government pull its security forces out of the center of its capital? That seems unlikely, to say the least. According to early reports, the police did start to pull back after the truce went into effect, but got charged and fought back. If that’s what happened — and it’s too confusing to know for sure — they won’t try that again without a force behind them to cover their retreat, and that is probably not what Jay Carney had in mind anyway.
Besides, an ultimatum from the US is probably among the least-relevant issues in Kiev at the moment. Last night, Hugh Hewitt discussed the Obama “line” with CNN’s Jake Tapper, who couldn’t believe that the White House would use that kind of terminology after the Syria collapse:
HH: Now Jake Tapper, if people step over the line, I’m almost amazed that he used that language given the red line fiasco in Syria.
HH: And the poker tell, I want to be very clear. I’m sure he said almost exactly that during the Syrian crisis. Does he think we have amnesia?
JT: And we pointed this out in our show today, the use of the term the line, and in fact, I asked Haas if you’re Yanukovych, and you’re sitting there and you hear President Obama talk about that line, how resonant is that? How much does the red line of Bashar al-Assad, the threat that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, that would be crossing a red line for the President. How much does that mean? He said it was a fair question. Obviously, you don’t know. The other thing that was interesting was that Haas said that he thought the U.S. options, there were far fewer options in Ukraine than in Syria, and one of the reasons I imagine would be because of Putin and his alliance with Yanukovych. And you don’t want this to be a, it already is a proxy conflict. You don’t want it to be a proxy war. So the options are quite limited, Haas said. But I agree, I was surprised by the use of the term line, and also, I thought what was interesting, what consequences are there? What will they be? Secretary of State John Kerry today raised the specter of sanctions, as did the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine last night. But it’s not clear exactly what the full tool kit as deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes referred to today, what’s in that tool kit, what can the U.S. do. It will be interesting to see what happens when the foreign ministers from Europe come to Kiev and talk to Yanukovych and the other foreign minister there.
HH: It’s almost as though someone said to him right before he went out, whatever you do, don’t use the word lines. And he couldn’t help himself, because it’s, it’s like a heat-seeking missile following the story lede, is Obama threatens another red line. He didn’t use red, obviously, but is he that unaware of the consequences not of the Ukranian knockdown but of his Syrian collapse?
JT: Well, I think, look, I mean, you’re asking me to get into the President’s brain and I can’t do that. But I can say a couple things. One is I think one of the things that the President knows is that there is a tremendous reluctance for the U.S., among the American people, for the U.S. to get involved in another military conflict right now, that that’s something that the nation is war weary. And so I believe that the President and the White House feel that actions that end up not leading to war, whether it’s seen as weakness by some or not, whether it’s seen as backing away from a red line or not, ultimately, that the President will enjoy support for not taking the country to war. I think that that’s one calculation that they make.
HH: But you know what’s interesting, Jake…
JT: And I don’t know that it’s wrong. It might be cynical, but I don’t know that it’s wrong.
Yanukovich has more to worry about in Brussels, where the EU is considering the application of sanctions on his regime:
As new violent clashes erupted in Kiev, the EU is threatening targeted sanctions against Ukranian officials they hold responsible for the violence that has killed at least 28 people and injured more than 200.
EU Foreign Ministers held Thursday in Brussels an extraordinary meeting on the situation in Ukraine while in Washington, the US announced that it had imposed visa travel bans on around 20 senior members of the Ukrainian government as a first step towards a broader package of sanctions.
According to official sources, EU sanctions being considered include further visa restrictions on senior Ukrainian officials close to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich who are thought to be responsible for the violence, as well as the possible freezing of assets.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said EU member states have a broad consensus for a possible decision on the introduction of targeted sanctions against certain officials in Ukraine. He said:”We cannot forget the images of the last few days and the tragic deaths and injuries of so many people. This is why the Foreign Affairs Council will meet today to discuss the adoption of targeted measures against those responsible for violence and use of excessive force… I am happy to see that there is now a broad consensus among our member states in the way to deal with this issue.”
The US is a superpower, but Ukraine has to engage with the EU economically in order to survive. Yanukovich can’t afford to have all ties cut with the West, not politically or fiscally. That’s a much bigger deal to Ukraine than an unrealistic demand to surrender the center of the capital or even the protest of of its Olympic athletes today.