WASHINGTON — Ukraine took a steep step toward total chaos Tuesday as the government attempted to forcefully clear Kiev’s main square of a three-month-long protest, resulting in at least 19 reported deaths.
Twitter was bursting with live reports of the mayhem and pictures of protesters’ bloodied faces. Heavyweight boxing champ and parliamentary opposition leader Vitali Klitschko urged foes of the Viktor Yanukovych regime to stay in the square, and the numbers not only stayed consistent but swelled. Though Klitschko urged women and children to leave the square when it became apparent that Yanukovych was orchestrating an offensive against the demonstrators, reports from the scene included elderly women calling police “killers” and challenging them to shoot. Protesters erected a fire barricade to help keep the police at bay as anthems filled the smoky air in a scene reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Government snipers aiming at protesters from the rooftops were supplied by Russia, said the opposition, while Yanukovych forces claimed they were sent by NATO.
Eyes turned toward Washington for statements on the events, forceful words for Yanukovych or perhaps even a threat of sanctions. But throughout the months-long ordeal, those communications have not been coming from the commander in chief.
The White House handed off the crisis to Vice President Joe Biden some time ago, with the last discussion released by the press office between President Obama and Yanukovych happening on March 27, 2012. There’s no indication of the two leaders speaking since.
That 2012 discussion was at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. According to a readout from the White House, Obama “raised U.S. concerns about selective prosecutions of the political opposition.”
Since then, Ukraine’s president has dealt with America’s No. 2. In November 2012, Biden thanked Yanukovych for his congratulations on their ticket’s re-election and “urged Ukraine to live up to its democratic commitments and end selective prosecutions.” In November 2013, Biden called Yanukovych to express “his disappointment in the Ukrainian government’s decision to delay preparations for signature of an Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU,” a decision to pull back from Europe and toward Moscow that sparked the protests.
In a Dec. 9 phone call with Yanukovych, Biden “expressed his deep concern about the situation in Ukraine and the growing potential for violence,” according to the White House readout. “The Vice President underscored the need to immediately de-escalate the situation and begin a dialogue with opposition leaders on developing a consensus way forward for Ukraine. He noted that violence has no place in a democratic society and is incompatible with our strategic relationship.”
“The Vice President reaffirmed the strong support of the United States for Ukraine’s European aspirations and welcomed President Yanukovych’s commitment to maintaining this path. He underscored the close alignment of the United States and the European Union, and welcomed the upcoming visits of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and State Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland to Kyiv.”
A recent Nuland visit put the U.S. in a less than favorable light as an arbiter of peace in the region. In a leaked conversation, the U.S. diplomat said “f*ck the EU” and opined that Klitshcko, a fervent anti-communist and party leader elected to parliament in 2012, shouldn’t be a major figure in a new government. The Obama administration blamed Russia for making sure that private conversation went viral.
Secretary of State John Kerry jumped in on Dec. 10 with remarks expressing the “disgust” of the U.S. at Yanukovych’s violent response to the protests, referencing Biden’s call to Yanukovych. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his Ukrainian counterpart on Dec. 11 to warn him “not to use the Armed Forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion.”
Biden spoke with Yanukovych again on Jan. 23 to state that “violence by any side is not acceptable” and underscore “that only the government of Ukraine can ensure a peaceful end to the crisis and further bloodshed would have consequences for Ukraine’s relationship with the United States.”
The vice president rang up the Ukrainian president four days later to “express U.S. support for on-going negotiations between the government and the opposition to end the current standoff and bring about a peaceful, political solution to the crisis.” Yanukovych called Biden on Jan. 28 with an update. “He strongly encouraged President Yanukovych to continue to work with the opposition to find compromises critical to a peaceful solution,” the White House said in its readout.
And today, when all hell broke loose, it was again up to Biden.
“In a call today with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Vice President Biden urged President Yanukovych to take advantage of every opportunity, including offers of international support, to reduce tensions and build trust with the people of Ukraine in order to find a political solution to the crisis,” the White House said. “This includes taking immediate steps such as pulling back riot police, releasing detained protesters, and establishing accountability for those responsible for beatings and attacks on journalists and protesters.”
“Vice President Biden emphasized that the only viable path to peace and stability in Ukraine is through continued dialogue and genuine compromise to form a new government that can earn the confidence of the Ukrainian people.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney didn’t talk about Ukraine until asked at the end of today’s daily briefing.
“I can tell you we are appalled by the violence that was already taking place in downtown Kiev and reports of armed riot police massing on the edge of Maidan. We continue to condemn street violence and excessive use of force by either side. Force will not resolve the crisis,” Carney said. “To restore, rather, peace and stability, we urge President Yanukovych to deescalate immediately the situation and end the confrontation at Maidan. We also urge him to re-start a dialogue with opposition leaders today to develop a consensus way forward for Ukraine.”
The crisis promises to rip further at the administration’s already tattered “reset” with Russia, as Moscow claimed this month that Washington is “crudely interfering” with the former Soviet state.
When asked today whether Obama or Biden had reached out to Yanukovych, Carney again noted who’s in charge of the crisis.
“I don’t have an update on the fairly regular conversations that the vice president, in particular, has been having with President Yanukovych and others in Ukraine,” he said.