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Cold War-style standoff as Ukraine politics boil; Obama team finally jumps in

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2013

Searing political tension in Ukraine got even hotter Monday when heavily armed riot police stormed the nation's main opposition party headquarters, even as President Viktor F. Yanukovich said he is willing to hold talks with protesters who have brought Kiev to its knees with massive demonstrations in the past two weeks.

In Washington, the Obama administration ramped up its calls for calm in the Eastern European nation, with Vice President Joseph R. Biden speaking by telephone with Mr. Yanukovich to express what Mr. Biden's office described as "deep concern about the situation" and the "growing potential for violence."

A top congressional Democrat, meanwhile, called for the Obama administration to stand firm with the former Soviet Republic's pro-Western demonstrators, who have been enraged since late last month when Mr. Yanukovich suddenly abandoned plans to sign a major trade and political association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.

Millions of Ukrainians saw the development as an expression of their president's desire to move their nation more tightly into the orbit of Russia.

Before Mr. Biden's call, the Obama administration seemed reluctant to jump into the fray.

While recent days saw a clutch of sledge-hammer-wielding protesters in Kiev toppling a statue of Vladimir Lenin, the communist revolutionary and first leader of the former Soviet Union, the Obama administration has tried to resist characterizing the situation as a Cold War-era political standoff between East and West.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki reiterated that position Monday, telling reporters in Washington that "this is not about the United States versus Russia, this is about Ukraine, the people of Ukraine."

Still, other administration officials have taken a firmer stand, expressing solidarity with the protesters. Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, suggested during a visit to Kiev last week that the stakes behind the political unrest were incredibly high.

"The whole world is watching," Ms. Nuland told representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe gathered in the Ukrainian capital Thursday. "This is Ukraine's moment to meet the aspirations of its people or to disappoint them and risk descending into chaos and violence.

"There should be no doubt about where the United States stands on this," she added. "We stand with the people of Ukraine who see their future in Europe and want to bring their country back to economic health and unity."

Ms. Nuland was in Moscow on Monday, where she further "expressed U.S. deep concern" to her Russian counterparts and "urged Russia to use its influence to press for peace, human dignity and a political solution" in Kiev, the State Department said.

Biden reaffirms U.S. support

Ms. Nuland's remarks appeared designed to dovetail with a message the White House sought to send to Mr. Yanukovich through Mr. Biden's call Monday.

"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," Mr. Biden's office said in a statement.

He also "reaffirmed the strong support of the United States for Ukraine's European aspirations and welcomed President Yanukovich's commitment to maintaining this path."

The Obama administration also said Ms. Nuland would return to Kiev on Tuesday as part of a U.S. and Western European attempt to help defuse the ongoing tensions. The European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, is also slated to arrive in the city Tuesday.

Away from the international posturing, Ukraine's struggling economy hangs like a thick cloud over the political turmoil. And the nation's current recession and ballooning budget may help to explain the Yanukovich government's sudden willingness last month to turn East rather than continue pursuing closer ties with the European Union, where economic growth also has been stagnant in recent years.

The Financial Times noted last week that even as protesters filled the streets of Kiev calling for his resignation, Mr. Yanukovich traveled to China in hopes of securing billion-dollar loans and investments that could shore up the nation's ailing economy.

Cracking down on protests

That move appeared to further anger opposition leaders who oversaw the cramming of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into Kiev on Sunday.

The rally was not only the biggest held over the past three weeks, but it also represented the most intense and massive political expression in the Ukrainian capital since the Orange Revolution brought democracy to the former Soviet Republic nearly a decade ago.

The protesters this time around are angered not only by the Yanukovich government's thwarting of their desire to move closer to the West, but by the government's harsh, military-style crackdowns on demonstrators. On two occasions since late last month, club-swinging police have moved in to break up protests.

On Monday, armed police stormed the offices of the Fatherland Party, the lead opposition party. Ostap Semerak, a party member told The Associated Press that troops broke into Fatherland's offices Monday evening, some climbing in through its windows.

"They are storming us. The images are insane," he said by telephone.

The troops left after confiscating some computer equipment, he said. An AP reporter later saw broken glass and smashed computers in the offices.

Party member Marina Soroka also said the troops surrounded and blockaded several opposition-minded Ukrainian media outlets, making their and other media websites inaccessible.

The party is headed by imprisoned former prime Yulia Tymoshenko, a long-standing foe of Mr. Yanukovich, and is the largest opposition grouping in the parliament.

Calling for negotiations

It was unclear, meanwhile, whether anger over the raid on the party's headquarters might jeopardize the possibility of a reconciliation between the Yanukovich government and protesters.

Before news of the raid broke Monday, Mr. Yanukovich was reported to have had accepted a proposal made by three past Ukrainian presidents to sit down with opposition leaders in an attempt to ease tensions.

While the Ukranian president said the roundtable could occur as early as Tuesday, he did not indicate whether he was open to reconsidering his decision to abandon the EU agreement last month.

In Washington, Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the Obama administration to take a firm stand with Ukraine's pro-democracy and pro-European Union demonstrators

"They must know that their voices are being heard," Mr. Engel wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Monday.

Mr. Engel called on "all parties" in Ukraine to "exercise restraint, avoid confrontation and enter into dialogue." He also stressed that, "The U.S. must make clear that we and the international community will not tolerate the use of force against peaceful protesters."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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