|Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych (left) greets U.S. Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kiev on Thursday. (AP-Yonhap)|
KIEV (AFP) ― Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, found himself squeezed between mounting pressure by the United States and Russia on Thursday as the former cold war superpowers sought to influence a political crisis wracking his ex-Soviet satellite state.
Yanukovych late Thursday was to fly to Sochi to hold talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics opening, his office said.
His departure on the two-day trip was taking place just after Yanukovych held talks in Kiev on Thursday with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
The back-to-back meetings underlined the ratcheted-up struggle between Washington and Moscow to bring Ukraine into a Western or a Russian orbit, and the stakes as Yanukovych weathers more than two months of pro-West demonstrations that have badly weakened his rule.
Sharpening the tone, the Kremlin on Thursday accused the United States of arming Ukranian “rebels” and warned Russia could intervene to end the crisis.
“The stunts the Americans are pulling today by crudely interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs in a unilateral manner are an obvious violation” of a 1994 treaty giving the U.S. and Russia roles as security coguarantors for Ukraine, Sergei Glazyev, Putin’s economic adviser, told the Ukrainian edition of Russia’s Kommersant.
When conflicts arise, the guarantors “are obliged to intervene,” Glazyev said.
The hawkish adviser, who is viewed as the Kremlin pointman on Ukraine, said: “According to our information, American sources spend $20 million a week on financing the opposition and rebels, including on weapons.”
He alleged that militants were briefed in the U.S. Embassy and being armed.
One Ukrainian activist, Dmytro Bulatov told reporters in a hospital in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, that he had been abducted in Ukraine, “crucified” to a wooden door, and beaten until he was made to say he was an American spy.
“I told them that the American ambassador had given me $50,000,” Bulatov said. “It was so scary, it so painful that I asked them to kill me. I lied because I could not stand the pain.”
The U.S. Embassy did not immediately comment on Glazyev’s allegations.
Instead its attention was focused on Nuland’s visit, which came a day after EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said in Kiev that Yanukovych’s government was not doing enough to overcome Ukraine’s worst crisis since independence in 1991.
After the meeting with Nuland, Yanukovych’s office issued a statement saying he supported swift constitutional reforms backed by protest leaders that would curb some of his powers.
But both the opposition and the West suspect the 63-year-old leader is playing for time.
In Russia’s Black Sea city of Sochi, on the sidelines of Friday’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony, Yanukovych was expected to hold talks with Putin, to the fury of Ukraine’s opposition.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the talks, Russian and Ukrainian officials were tight-lipped over details.
But it is expected in part to touch on the fate of a crucial $15 billion bailout Russia promised Ukraine but which is now on hold.
The protests against Yanukovych broke out when the president in late November backed out of an EU trade and political association pact under Russian pressure.
Buoyed by Western support, the demonstrations spread and dug in, earning concessions from Yanukovych ― notably the dismissal of the government and the scrapping of controversial anti-protest laws.
Since then, the protests have largely died down though activists remain barricaded in Kiev‘s central Independence Square ― and on Thursday one activist in an occupied building had his hand blown off by a bomb blast.
Another activist, 15, was hospitalized with eye burns.
With Yanukovych resisting calls to step down, the opposition is demanding the constitution be amended to curb presidential powers.
The crisis has seen the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, slump as residents scramble to convert their savings into other currencies.
The West is considering putting together financing for Ukraine but one EU diplomat said it would not be able to match Russia’s aid.