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Washington Talking Tougher on Ukraine, But Still Intent on Not Angering Russia

WASHINGTON — After yet another harsh crackdown on peaceful protesters, Washington waded a bit further into the Ukrainian crisis by sending a State Department official to have a “realistic” conversation with President Viktor Yanukovych — a chat that likely wasn’t what the demonstrators were looking for.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also hopped on the phone with his Ukrainian counterpart to warn Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedyev “not to use the Armed Forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion.”

“He underlined the potential damage of any involvement by the military in breaking up the demonstrations and called for restraint,” Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said in a statement. “Minister Lebedyev stated that it is President Yanukovych’s position not to use the Armed Forces against the protesters and said he would pass the Secretary’s message directly to President Yanukovych.”

Tensions escalated when, before dawn on Wednesday, police wielded chainsaws against barriers the pro-democracy demonstrators had erected around Independence Square in Kiev to protect their ranks.

State security services have already said they’ll charge protest leaders with trying to stage a coup. Protesters, however, maintain that they’re simply asserting their democratic rights and fury over Yanukovych’s refusal to pull Kiev closer to the European Union.

Not only is the president blocking off routes to modernization and greater trade opportunities for Ukraine, but he did so under the thumb of Moscow. President Vladimir Putin, eager to exert whatever control he can over the Soviet-era sphere, promised trade sanctions and a sharp hike in natural gas prices if Ukraine agreed to an EU deal, but excellent discounts on gas if Yanukovych took Moscow’s preferred route.

Yanukovych issued a statement on his website inviting “representatives of all political forces, priests, public figures to hold the nationwide dialogue” and end the protests.

“I have repeatedly emphasized that the only possible way is the way of reconciliation and consensus. The actions of both parties should be taken solely within the laws and the Constitution of Ukraine,” he said. “…In order to achieve compromise, I urge the opposition not to refuse, not to choose the path of confrontation and ultimatums. I assure that the government will act exclusively in the framework of the law and will never use force against peaceful rallies.”

But former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s key opponent jailed in 2011, urged her countrymen to “rise up” and not fall for the president’s tactics.

“Every time a Berkut baton strikes a blow on a peaceful person at Maidan it is a blow to the face of the Ukrainian people. Don’t let Yanukovych to make violence a norm in our lives. I urge every Ukrainian to stand up!” Tymoshenko said in a statement posted on her website. “No negotiations or roundtables with bandits – only the immediate resignation of Yanukovych and his entourage.”

“I also appeal to the leaders of the democratic world. Every time a Berkut baton strikes a blow on a peaceful protester defending Maidan it is a blow to the universal values that you are trying to make the foundation of human life,” she added. “I beg you to act! Stop the authoritarian regime in Ukraine with financial and visa sanctions, and start international investigations into their corruption. Otherwise a cemetery for freedom burial will be built in Ukraine. Act!”

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, who was recently press secretary under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was sent to Moscow on Monday for “productive bilateral meetings” on a host of issues including urging Russia to “use its influence to press for peace, human dignity and a political solution.”

On Wednesday, Nuland met with Yanukovych for two hours. Afterward, she told reporters, “I hope the people of Ukraine know that the United States stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity, for security, for economic health and for the European future that you have chosen and you deserve.”

She said the meeting with Yanukovych “was a tough conversation, but it was a realistic one.”

It was also one where the U.S. did not advocate for the main demand of the protesters and Tymoshenko: that Yanukovych step down.

“I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night, what has been happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state. But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine’s European future and that is what we want to see the president lead,” Nuland said.

“But that is going to require immediate security steps and getting back into a conversation with Europe and with the International Monetary Fund, and bringing justice and dignity to the people of Ukraine,” Nuland added. “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. Thank you all. I am going home to report to my government.”

The administration upped the public relations offensive, as well, with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoff Pyatt, tweeting photos of Nuland handing out bread to protesters and security forces.

Actors George Clooney and Hayden Panettiere had previously shown more public support for the demonstrators.

Over at the White House on Wednesday, spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration is “appalled” by the crackdown.

“The Ukrainian government’s response to peaceful protests over the last two weeks has been completely unacceptable, and it’s difficult to understand why they have decided to move against their own people repeatedly with force rather than engage in a real dialogue with the opposition. The right to peaceful protest and assembly must be respected. Violence of the sort that we have seen on the streets of Kiev is impermissible in a democratic state. We’re also very concerned by credible reports of security services raiding the offices of opposition parties and media organizations in the last few days,” Earnest said.

“This is President Yanukovych’s moment to meet the aspirations of the Ukrainian people or disappoint them,” he added. “…It is fair to say that the lines of communication between this administration and the leadership in Ukraine remain open.”

State Dept. spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that “this is not about the United States versus Russia.”

Relaying information about Nuland’s meetings on Wednesday, Psaki reiterated “our view is this is not a zero-sum game, that there are – can be relationships and friendships and partnerships with a range of countries.”

“Obviously, getting back into a conversation with Europe and with the IMF and bringing, of course, justice and dignity to the people of Ukraine is what we were – what our strong message was on the ground. All policy options, including sanctions, are on the table in our view. But obviously, that still is being evaluated,” she said. “I’m not going to get into specifics of that. We’re considering policy options. There obviously hasn’t been a decision made. Sanctions are included, but I’m not going to outline more specifics.”

Psaki made clear yet again that they’re trying to not aggravate Russia. “What we mean by not a zero-sum game with Russia is that Russia can also, of course, have a relationship. We’re talking about what’s best for the future of the people in Ukraine in terms of their integration. So that’s a separate question,” she said.

WBC heavyweight boxing champ and parliament member Vitali Klitschko, who has been out with the protesters urging security forces to not use violence on their countrymen, told the crowds Wednesday that they were making history with their stand.

“We won and proved that all together, side by side, we are able to defend our principles and desire to live in a free democratic country. Today there are more of us than yesterday. People from different parts of Ukraine have either already arrived or still on their way here,” he said.

Klitschko, who is running for president in 2015, said that the police action showed a change in government is needed as soon as possible.

“At first we are offered some roundtables and then they send riot police against peaceful protesters. What kind of agreement can we talk about? None of our demands are fulfilled,” he said. “We do not want to live under dictatorship. Neither will we. Therefore we will win.”