EU mulls Ukraine sanctions amid deteriorating situation

The 28-nation bloc could decide on imposing sanctions when foreign ministers meet Thursday

Anti-government protesters guard the perimeter of Independence Square, known as Maidan, on Wednesday in Kiev.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Smoke rose above the center of the Ukrainian capital Wednesday amid the boom of police stun grenades. Officers in riot gear sought to push demonstrators away from Kiev's Independence Square following deadly clashes between police and protesters that left at least 26 people dead and hundreds injured a day earlier. It was the deadliest violence to rock the capital in nearly three months of anti-government protests.

The latest bout of street violence began Tuesday when protesters attacked police lines and set fires outside parliament, accusing President Viktor Yanukovich of ignoring their demands to enact constitutional reforms that would limit the president's power — a key opposition demand. Parliament, dominated by his supporters, was stalling on taking up a constitutional reform to limit presidential powers.

The sprawling nation of 46 million people, with an ailing economy and endemic corruption, is the object of a geopolitical wrangling between Moscow and the West. 

"I think certainly the West is supportive of the demonstrators. There's a reason for that," Anthony Salvia, executive director of the American Institute in Ukraine told Al Jazeera's Stephnie Sy Wednesday. "They would like to see the current government go, and that is something obviously Moscow is trying to prevent. So there is this tug-of-war going on over Ukraine between Moscow and Brussels and Washington on the other hand." 

The deteriorating situation in the country, that originally began with Yanukovich spurning a far-reaching trade deal with the European Union in favor of accepting a $15-billion Russian bailout, has prompted EU members to consider imposing sanctions at a meeting of the 28-nation bloc's foreign ministers on Thursday.

'They will be sanctioned'

Speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande condemned the situation in Ukraine as "unacceptable, intolerable, inadmissible acts of violence and brutality." 

"Those who have committed the acts and who are committed to commit further acts must know they will be sanctioned," Hollande said. 

Sanctions would typically at first include banning leading officials from traveling to the 28-nation bloc and freezing their assets there.

"Only political dialogue can bring progress (in Ukraine)," Merkel said. "The EU will do what it can to contribute." 

Taras Kuzio, a Ukraine expert at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, said that a peaceful solution to the problem can be possible with international intervention, but so far, the "European Union has been pretty hopeless and very passive." 

"Maybe tomorrow, the EU will start to adopt a tougher line, but I don’t see how this can end in a less bloody, less violent way without international mediation," Kuzio told Al Jazeera's Del Walters on Wednesday.

The White House also said the Ukrainian government needs to pull back riot police, call a truce and hold discussions with the opposition, while adding that it would also consider sanctions. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Twitter that whether Ukraine descends into chaos is in "President Yanukovich's hands."

'We must fight'

On Wednesday morning, the center of Kiev was cordoned off by police, the subway was shut down and most shops on a main street were closed. But hundreds of Ukrainians still flocked to the opposition camps, where burning tents lit up the night sky on Tuesday after riot police moved against the sprawling protest camp. 

Protesters also seized control of the capital's central post office in Independence Square. 

"We must fight this bloody, criminal leadership. We must fight for our country, our Ukraine," Vasyl Oleksenko, a retired geologist from central Ukraine, told The Associated Press. 

Yanukovych, who declared Thursday a day of mourning for the dead, though, was defiant on Wednesday.

"I again call on the leaders of the opposition ... to draw a boundary between themselves and radical forces which are provoking bloodshed and clashes with the security services," the president said in a statement. "If they don't want to leave (the square) — they should acknowledge that they are supporting radicals. Then the conversation with them will already be of a different kind." 

A spokesman for Putin, meanwhile, said that the Russian president had not given Yanukovych advice on how to settle the crisis, adding that it was up to the Ukrainian government. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, blaming the West for the failure to condemn the opposition for the latest bout of violence.

EU leaders took the opposite stance, with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt putting the blame on Yanukovych in an unusually tough statement.

"Today, President Yanukovich has blood on his hands," Bildt said.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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