Transitioning Ukraine caught in East-West tug of war

US warns Russia against intervention

People mourn at a site where protesters opposing the president were killed in recent clashes in Kiev, Feb. 24, 2014.
Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Ukraine's new interim president pledged to put the country back on course for European integration now that Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted, and the United States warned Russia against sending in its forces.

As rival neighbors east and west of the former Soviet republic said a power vacuum in Kiev must not lead to the country's breaking apart, acting president Oleksander Turchynov said on Sunday that Ukraine's new leadership wanted relations with Russia on a "new, equal and good-neighborly footing that recognizes and takes into account Ukraine's European choice."

The Ukrainian parliament named new speaker Turchynov as the interim head of state. An ally of the ousted leader's long-jailed rival Yulia Tymoshenko, he aims to swear in a government by Tuesday that can provide authority until a presidential election on May 25.

Yanukovich reportedly fled the capital for eastern Ukraine after dozens of deaths during street protests aimed at toppling him and was stopped by the border service when he tried to fly out of the country Saturday.

While law enforcement agencies say they don’t know where Yanukovich is, opposition lawmaker Volodym Kurennoy said on his Facebook page that he had unconfirmed information that the president had been arrested in Crimea. Ukrainian news portal reported that residents of Sevastopol, a port on the Crimean Peninsula, saw Yanukovich there in the company of Russian marines. But spokesmen for the Interior Ministry and Security Service in Crimea said Monday they have no information about Yanukovich's whereabouts.

With battle-hardened, pro-Western protesters in control of central Kiev and determined to hold their leaders to account, lawmakers rushed through decisions to cement their power, display their rejection of rampant corruption and bring to book officials who ordered police to fire on protesters in Independence Square.

But whoever takes charge as interim prime minister faces a huge challenge to satisfy popular expectations and will find an economy in deep crisis, even if the European Union makes good on new offers of aid that may help make up for loans that Russia has frozen.

Scuffles in Russian-speaking Crimea and some eastern cities between supporters of the new, pro-EU order in Kiev and those anxious to stay close to Moscow revived fears of separatism that a week earlier were focused on the west, where Ukrainian nationalists had disowned Yanukovich and proclaimed self-rule.

Russian news agency Interfax reported Moscow had recalled its ambassador to Ukraine for consultation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed on the need to resolve the situation without violence when they spoke by phone Saturday afternoon, the State Department said in a statement.

Kerry "expressed the importance of encouraging Ukraine to move forward on a path towards constitutional change, de-escalation, the creation of a coalition government, early elections and rejection of violence," the State Department said in a description of the call.

Kerry "also underscored the United States' expectation that Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic freedom of choice will be respected by all states."

Aftermath of a bloody week

Yanukovich's shelving of an agreement with the EU in November set off the wave of protests, and the demonstrators quickly expanded their complaints to allegations of corruption and human rights abuses — and, eventually, to demands that Yanukovich resign.

The Kiev protest camp at the center of the anti-Yanukovich movement filled with more demonstrators on Sunday. They set up new tents after a day that saw a stunning reversal of fortune in a political standoff that has left scores dead.

"We need to catch and punish those with blood on their hands," Artyom Zhilyansky, a 45-year-old engineer at Independence Square said Sunday, referring to the at least 77 people killed in clashes with police last week.

He and other protesters called for law enforcement chiefs to be held accountable and for Yanukovich to be put on trial.

In the parliamentary vote that resulted in Turchynov's temporary presidency, deputies also voted to remove a group of government ministers and tried to work out a coalition government. However, the legitimacy of the parliament's flurry of decisions in recent days is in question.

The votes are based on a decision Friday to return to a 10-year-old constitution that grants parliament greater powers. But Yanukovich has not signed that decision into law, and he said Saturday that the parliament is acting illegally.

The political crisis in the nation of 46 million escalated and changed with blinding speed over the past week. First there were signs that tensions were easing, followed by horrifying violence and then a deal signed under Western pressure that aimed to resolve the conflict but left the country's unity in question.

Protester self-defense units, which have acted as a de facto police force, peacefully changed shifts Sunday. Helmeted and wearing makeshift shields, they have replaced police guarding the president's administration and parliament and have sought to stop radical forces from inflicting damage or unleashing violence.

International reaction

International reactions came fast after the whirlwind developments this weekend.

In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice urged a peaceful transition in Ukraine, saying that it would be a "grave mistake" for Russia to send troops into the country and that the country should stay unified.

"There is not an inherent contradiction ... between a Ukraine that has long-standing historic and cultural ties to Russia and a modern Ukraine that wants to integrate more closely with Europe," she said. "It need not be mutually exclusive."

Britain also warned Russia on Sunday against intervening in Ukraine's "complex" crisis, saying London wanted to contribute to an international economic program aimed at shoring up the "desperately difficult" situation of the Ukrainian economy.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government was in regular contact with the Russian government to try to persuade it that closer ties between Ukraine and the EU should not worry Moscow.

"If there's an economic package, it will be important that Russia doesn't do anything to undermine that economic package and is working in cooperation and support of it," he told BBC TV.

The White House on Saturday urged Ukraine to quickly form a unity government.

"We have consistently advocated a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change, a coalition government and early elections, and today's developments could move us closer to that goal," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a news release. "The unshakable principle guiding events must be that the people of Ukraine determine their own future."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far remained silent on the latest developments.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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