|U.S. Senator John McCain (second from left), U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (second from right) and U.S. ambassador in Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt walk to Independence Square in Kiev during a mass opposition rally on Sunday. (AFP-Yonhap News)|
WASHINGTON (AFP) ― Amid a mounting political crisis, the United States is turning up the heat on Ukraine’s leaders, seeking to push the former Soviet republic into the EU’s embrace and away from the grasp of former foe Russia.
In recent days, Washington has toughened its stand, denouncing with “disgust” a police crackdown on demonstrators, while a top US diplomat popped up in Kiev’s Maidan Square to address protesters and hand out cakes.
Vice President Joe Biden telephoned President Viktor Yanukovych to voice Washington’s “deep concern,” while the State Department said it was even weighing possible sanctions.
Observers may ask why the US is deepening its involvement after Yanukovych’s abrupt decision not to sign an association accord with the European Union, which many in Europe had seen as a done deal.
But behind the scenes, analysts see the battle for the future soul of Ukraine as a continuation of a decades-long ideological struggle.
“Really since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its European allies have worked studiously to pull the former countries of the Soviet bloc westward,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Charles Kupchan told AFP.
“Part of that has been altruistic, in the sense that the record shows that those countries that have become members of NATO and the EU have done much better than those countries that have not.
“But part of it is also a continuation of the great game for geopolitical influence in Russia’s so-called near abroad.”
With central Europe already having reorientated toward the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to set up a Moscow-led customs union with former Soviet countries, and the Kremlin are showing a nationalistic streak.
“Right now we’re seeing some head-butting going on between Putin’s effort to keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence and the efforts of Europe and the United States to pull it out of that sphere,” said Kupchan.
The EU has said it cannot sign a free trade agreement with Ukraine if the ex-Soviet country joins the Customs Union, while Moscow has threatened an increase in gas prices and trade restrictions if cash-strapped Kiev opts for European integration.
“The Russians are trying to force on Ukraine an either or choice,” said former U.S. ambassador to Kiev Steven Pifer, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“It doesn’t help the process of what is going on in Ukraine if there’s a Russia-U.S. fight going on, it’s only going to cause the Russians to dig in further,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week insisted ahead of a visit to neighboring Moldova that Europe and its allies were not in a “bidding war” over what path Ukraine takes.
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Wednesday that Kiev would like a staggering $20 billion euro ($27.5 billion) EU loan before signing the accord ― which perhaps could help it pay off $2 billion it owes to Russian energy company Gazprom.
But the United States could help keep up the pressure on Kiev through such options as sanctions, or by promising support at the world lender the IMF if Ukraine’s leaders resume talks on a multibillion-dollar loan, Pifer said.
And indeed, the EU said after more talks that it would help Kiev sign a deal with the IMF, and once there was a firm commitment from Ukraine to sign the pact, then it would prepare a “roadmap” for its implementation.
Sanctions were just “one tool in the tool box that we are considering,” a State Department spokeswoman said Thursday, adding “it’s certainly something that’s on the table” without going into detail.
U.S. Assistant Secretary for Europe Victoria Nuland has shuttled between Kiev and Moscow over the past week, and on Wednesday turned up in the square where the 2004 Orange Revolution unfolded.
She told reporters she had a “tough” but “realistic” conversation with Yanukovych.
“I have no doubt after our meeting that President Yanukovych knows what he needs to do. The whole world is watching. We want to see a better future for Ukraine,” she said.
Analysts say it’s uncertain how the political standoff is going to end, and whether Yanukovych can make the tough compromises needed.
Joerg Forbrig, expert with the Washington-based German Marshall Fund of the United States, saw Nuland’s show of support as “too little, too late.”
Kerry’s decision to skip last week’s summit talks of a European security body in Kiev was also a mistake that left the Ukrainians feeling abandoned, according to analysts.
“It should have been a must for Kerry to attend the meeting ... to familiarize himself with the situation in Ukraine,” Forbrig said.