White House Takes Credit for Ukraine Deal
WASHINGTON -- President Viktor Yanukovych left Kiev after inking a deal Friday with opposition leaders to end the bloodshed, while the Obama administration was left explaining its role as the events quickly unfolded.
Opposition leader and parliamentarian Vitali Klitschko said the agreement was "signed with witness of foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland" and included the formation of a national unity government, early presidential elections and amnesty for protesters. It came as the parliament threw Yanukovych under the bus with one overwhelming vote after another: condemning the crackdown, dialing back presidential powers by restoring the 2004 constitution, clearing the way for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko to be released from prison. Members of parliament sang the national anthem as in cities around Ukraine people pulled down at least 16 statues of V.I. Lenin, some decapitating upon impact.
"All detainees must be released and perpetrators of violence against people must be punished," Klitschko said. "People are the supreme controlling body for implementation of the arrangement."
And the White House, after passing the crisis off to the VP months ago and being nudged into talk of sanctions by outrage over the violent crackdown unfolding on TV, took credit.
"This, I don't think would have happened without the coordinated efforts of the United States and Europe," Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told CNN, claiming that the U.S. had "a lot" to do with the agreement.
From the European side, the agreement was forged with a threat. Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski was caught on camera telling a protest leader, "If you don't support this [deal] you'll have martial law, you'll have the army. You will all be dead."
Blinken claimed the vague public message the administration has been sending about its stance on Ukraine was nothing like what they were accomplishing behind the scenes.
"We have been very clear, and I think that had an important impact in getting people to move," he said. "First of all, we have already issued some visa restrictions on those who were responsible for the violence and repression. And under the law, we can't reveal the names of the people that are on that list, but they are aware of it, and that had an impact."
"We also told them that other steps could be forthcoming. And I think that had a real impact on their thinking, not just folks in the government, but some of the strong oligarchs who support the government and who also didn't like the idea of possibly not being able to travel here to Europe to do business in both places. So I think the possibility of those consequences was a real motivating factor."
When it was noted that President Obama drawing a red line of sorts could have less impact because of the Syria red line, Blinken replied, "I have got to admit, I really don't understand the criticism."
"When it comes to Syria, we made it very clear we were prepared to act to deal with the chemical weapons. And what resulted was an agreement with Russia and with us that Syria adhered to, to give up its chemical weapons…. So that, to me, is a tremendous success, and it was done without having to fire a shot," he added. More than 95 percent of Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons have not been removed from the country.
Russia was a "witness" to the signing of the Ukraine accord, and Obama called President Vladimir Putin for more than an hour's worth of conversation at midday Friday. Putin offered Yanukovych billions of dollars to bail on a plan to move closer to the EU, sparking the demonstrations three months ago.
"President Putin said he supported the agreement that was reached in Ukraine. He said that he wanted to work cooperatively with us, with the Europeans, with the International Monetary Fund to help develop a support package for Ukraine going forward. It was a very positive conversation," Blinken said. "…So, look, we obviously have our differences. But what we have demonstrated is that when we are able to work together, we can actually get things done that benefit Russia, benefit the United States, and benefit the international community."
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.
Biden called Yanukovych on Thursday to make "clear that the United States is prepared to sanction those officials responsible for the violence."
"The Vice President urged President Yanukovych to take immediate and tangible steps to work with the opposition on a path forward that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people," the White House said. It was Biden's ninth call to Yanukovych since November. "Almost every time the vice president was calling, it was a moment of decisive choice for President Yanukovych," an administration official said today.
Blinken told MSNBC today, though, that Obama "has been deeply involved guiding this every single day" -- or deeply involved in instructing his underlings to make it go away.
"He told us, his senior leadership team, to do everything we could to figure out a way to defuse the crisis and figure out a way forward for Ukraine. And that's what we've done under his instructions. We've reported to him every day over the last couple of weeks on the situation in Ukraine and gotten direction from him," Blinken said. "He spoke at length to Angela Merkel yesterday. He'll be speaking to President Putin in the hours ahead. And we've had Vice President Biden deeply engaged with President Yanukovych. And we've also had senior leaders throughout the administration working with the opposition, working with the Europeans. This has been a very tightly and closely coordinated effort directed by the president."
And Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel finally got his Ukrainian counterpart on the phone today.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Pavlo Lebedev "assured the secretary that the Ukrainian armed forces remain the protectors of the Ukrainian people, that their deployment inside the country has been focused on protecting defense facilities and equipment, and that his forces would not use arms against the Ukrainian people," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said this evening.
"Secretary Hagel said he was encouraged by the recent news that the Ukrainian government and the opposition leadership had reached an agreement on how to move forward without further violence. He commended the government's decision to keep the military on the sidelines of the crisis thus far and urged continued restraint."
A senior State Department official told reporters on background today that the U.S. was "very active diplomatically over the last two days." Deputy Secretary Bill Burns will visit Kiev early next week.
"More broadly, I think we've been able to have an impact at key moments throughout this. As I said, nine calls at key moments by the vice president to Yanukovych, but also, very strong intersections at key moments by Secretary Kerry, including, you'll remember, the night that Yanukovych moved his forces the first time against the Maidan, which was the night of Dec.10, and Secretary Kerry was the first to come out and call it a disgusting move," the official said.
"It sort of shocked the system in the Ukraine, brought people into the Maidan and helped people, you know, end -- avoid further bloodshed that night. Then, you remember when the black laws were passed, which closed on Jan. 16, which closed space for political opposition. Kerry again came out the next day and made clear that these were absolutely unacceptable and had to be repealed. One of the first public statements that this had to end, even before the street turned to violent. And then again his work with the opposition throughout this period in Munich since then, and again, today."
John Kerry hopped on the phone today for a call with opposition leaders. Klitschko was invited to the call, but stayed out in the Maidan with protesters instead.
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