Republicans and Democrats on Sunday called for stronger sanctions and more aggressive action against Russia amid growing unrest in southern Ukraine ahead of the country’s May 25 presidential election.
In the latest sign of escalating tumult in the region, hundreds of pro-Russia forces stormed police headquarters in Odessa and secured the release of more than 60 people who had been detained late last week.
Violence in the southern Ukrainian city exploded late last week when pro- and anti-Russia demonstrators clashed and dozens were killed after pro-Russia protesters took refuge in a building that caught fire in the struggle.
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt said there’s nothing he heard or saw in Odessa when he visited three weeks ago that would explain what happened Friday.
“I think it suggests that somebody wanted this violence to explode the way it did,” Mr. Pyatt said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And I think at this point the whole country is trying to figure out what happened, how to pull together and how to make sure that those who are trying to divide the country will not be successful.”
Mr. Pyatt said there was no evidence that Russia played a role in the violence over the past several days, but Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said police were being investigated for their failure to maintain order. He also said he had charged prosecutors with “finding all instigators, all organizers and all those that under Russian leadership began a deadly attack on Ukraine and Odessa.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said Russian President Vladimir Putin has so “successfully dismembered Ukraine,” that he fears civil war and that the May 25 presidential election cannot go forward.
“What I would do if I were the [Obama] administration, I would sanction the energy economy of Russia, the banking system of Russia, and try to drive the Russian economy into the ground,” Mr. Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “And I would help arm the Ukrainian people — no American troops on the ground — so they could defend themselves.”
Mr. Putin has said he does not want to send in troops to areas he considers historically Russian lands, but he will if necessary.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and ranking member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said there’s a reason Mr. Putin has not yet done so.
“I mean, he has all these troops poised at the Ukrainian border and he hasn’t crossed the border yet. I have to think that part of his calculation is that if he does that, all bets are off and sanctions would kick in,” Mr. Engel said on “State of the Union.”
Mr. Obama said Friday that if destabilization continues in the region to the point that it impedes the election, the U.S. will have no choice but to move forward with additional, more severe sanctions after a new round last week.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, one of a group of senators pushing for another round of sanctions immediately, said waiting to see what happens with the elections will be too late.
“We already see the playbook of what happened in Crimea happening in eastern Ukraine,” Ms. Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “At this point, Russia’s not getting the message.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports