The Ukrainian President is facing intense diplomatic pressure from both East and West after the European Union finally agreed on sanctions to try to stop the bloodshed in Independence Square, even as Moscow implied Kiev should take a heavier hand with protesters.
At stake is the political and economic future of the nation of 46 million people, which is becoming increasingly cleaved between the largely pro-Russian east, which backs President Viktor Yanukovych, and those who want to bring down his government and forge closer ties with the EU.
The conflict has sent relations between Brussels and Moscow to their lowest level since the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, and as the death toll mounted there was little sign of common ground.
A chorus of outrage from EU leaders at the fresh violence in Kiev culminated with an agreement to impose travel bans and assets freezes on those responsible for the bloodshed. EU nations will also be banned from exporting equipment that could be used for repression.
“It is a strong signal of how unacceptable this is,” said the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, after a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels. “It is unacceptable in any European city and [the sanctions] are a signal of the EU’s determination to do something about this.”
The Foreign Office had earlier summoned the Ukrainian ambassador to condemn the “shocking violence”. The White House also put out a statement saying it was “outraged by images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people”.
Washington has already imposed travel bans on 20 Ukrainian officials, although it has not revealed the names of those targeted. EU diplomats said they have yet to draw up the names of those affected by their sanctions.
The Kremlin has called such measures “blackmail”, but Russia’s leaders were also piling the pressure on Mr Yanukovych. Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, gave the clearest signal yet that the first $2bn tranche of a $15bn loan agreed for Ukraine could be suspended until order is restored.
“We will try to fulfil all our promises that we made… at the same time for this to happen it is necessary for our partners themselves to be in good shape and for the authorities in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective,” Mr Medvedev said, adding that Russia could deal only with “a leadership which people aren’t wiping their feet on like a doormat”.
The human cost of efforts to regain control became clear as the bodies of dozens of protesters mounted up in Kiev’s Independence Square. Health officials said that up to 39 people were killed during the day, taking the death toll this week to 67.
Not far from the makeshift morgues and medical centres in hotels and churches, the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland and France held five hours of talks with Mr Yanukovych to hammer out some sort of political solution.
For the first time, they had the concrete threat of sanctions to use as a lever with the President. Protesters have long been calling for punitive measures, but the EU had until now favoured incentives and compromise. A harder stance emerged after dozens of people were killed on Tuesday as police moved in to evict protesters from Independence Square.
The European ministers went to Mr Yanukovych with a proposal to form an interim government to oversee political transition. Mr Yanukovych is understood to have told the envoys that he is willing to hold early elections.
Protesters have been camped out in the main square in Kiev since late November, when Mr Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of a long-planned trade agreement with the EU. He decided instead to pursue stronger ties with Russia, which had offered $15bn in aid while also threatening retaliatory measures if Kiev forged a path towards Europe.
The U-turn shocked many people in Ukraine, with outrage especially acute in the western cities where the population had hoped that more integration with the EU would bring economic stability and help establish a gradual end to corruption and the hold powerful oligarchs had on government.
The fallout also hit competition at the Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi where the Ukrainian skier, Bogdana Matsotska, pulled out in protest at the killings.
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