The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham (Mass.), Feb. 20, 2014
Engulfed in violent protest, Ukraine has reached the brink of civil war. Blame-mongering for how this happened will have to wait. Instead, European Union foreign ministers must focus on pressuring the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to curb its "anti-terrorist" operations, uphold the fragile truce reached earlier this week, and make sure the dialogue it has started with the political opposition is productive.
This week's clashes in Kiev, in which at least 67 died and hundreds were injured, grew out of an increasingly brutal standoff that began less than three months ago, when Yanukovych spurned a free-trade deal with Europe in favor of Russian aid and energy supplies. Since then, the conflict has also tapped into long-running divisions in a country naturally positioned to be in the middle of a tug-of-war between Russia and Western Europe.
Yanukovych's unfortunate decision to send riot police to clear the square came shortly after he returned from a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and one day after Russia came to Ukraine's aid by buying $2 billion in Ukrainian government bonds. At this point, the violence has not only spooked investors, undermining the benefit of Russia's largesse, but it has also sparked threats of secession in Ukraine's west.
After months of feckless diplomacy -- including a statement by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton as the crackdown commenced that made no reference to any adverse consequences -- the EU has a chance now to push Yanukovych in a more constructive and peaceful direction. European officials are moving toward imposing "targeted measures, such as financial sanctions and visa restrictions against those responsible for violence and the use of excessive force." It would be smart for the EU to interpret that responsibility broadly.
Sanctions should include, for instance, travel bans, financial investigations and asset freezes against many people associated with the president's family who are in the cabinet and have economic holdings that merit scrutiny.
Notwithstanding Vice President Joe Biden's many telephone calls to Yanukovych, the U.S. has relatively limited leverage. It can, however, usefully broaden the visa sanctions it already has in place against Ukrainian public officials and complement whatever the EU does on targeted individual financial sanctions.
Sanctions may work only at the margins, but they send a signal that Western leaders will press for political leadership needed to resolve the bitter divisions laid bare over the last few weeks. For that to happen, Yanukovych must leave office, and elections must happen soon. A trusted international mediator could help in achieving both outcomes. Ukrainians of all stripes, however, must first be willing to return to the path of peaceful dialogue as the only way forward.