As renewed violence in the city of Kiev on Thursday broke a brief truce between protesters and government security forces, the U.S. government and the European Union are escalating—not helping—the situation, according to critics, by threatening sanctions against the embattled government of President Viktor Yanukovych while supporting (either directly or indirectly) the destabilizing actions of radical right elements lurking within the opposition movement.
Latest reports from the ground suggest that 70 or more people have been killed so far in two days of violence, with hundreds more injured as use of petrol bombs, gunfire, and more aggressive tactics on both sides have intensified.
Painting a scene of events and the city on Thursday, the Guardian reports:
The battle erupted as dawn broke on Thursday when radical street fighters among the protesters attacked and broke through the police lines established on Independence Square on Tuesday. A firefight left at least 10 dead, including nine opposition fighters. The militants then surged out of the square up the hill to the south where police snipers could be seen picking out targets as the city centre turned into a warzone.
The deafening noise included the clear sound of automatic weapons, as well as smoke and percussion grenades raining down on an avenue leading away from the square towards the parliament and the central bank. Demonstrators also reoccupied government buildings evacuated earlier in the week. Busloads of common riot police swiftly deserted the scene of the battle to be replaced by the special units of the Berkut security service. They, too, retreated very quickly, allowing the protesters to advance.
Dead and wounded were hauled away on their backs, on wooden planks, on makeshift metal shields and in blankets. Corpses lay temporarily abandoned on the streets. Police vehicles were set ablaze and then hacked to pieces.
Protesters ducked behind trees and ran for cover as police opened automatic gunfire. But by mid-morning the city centre was firmly in the hands of the opposition. The police seizure of the part of the square which cost 28 lives on Tuesday was finished, however temporarily. Some 60 riot police surrendered or were "taken prisoner" when the protesters stormed the police lines.
But as the violence itself has captured most of the headlines—and even as moderate opposition leaders in Ukraine have admitted they have "lost control" of the protests to more "quasi-fascist" and nationalist factions—experts on the situation in Ukraine say that most western media outlets are performing a disservice to the overall situation by casting Russia and Yanukovych as the source of blame for the bloodshed while glossing over key facts about the manner in which Europe and the U.S. have added to the recent instability.
"The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine." —Stephen Cohen, NYU professor emeritus
"We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps in order to create the atmosphere for compromise," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday from Paris. European leaders have issued a similar threat in the last twenty-four hours.
And for its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry, also on Wednesday, painted the U.S. and its western allies in Europe as the hidden culprit for the explosion of violence this week. "What's going on [in Kiev] is the direct result of the policy of connivance on behalf of Western politicians and European structures," read a statement from the government of Vladimir Putin. "From the very start of the crisis, [the U.S. and E.U.] have turned a blind eye to the aggressive actions of radical forces in Ukraine, encouraging them to engage in escalation and provocations against the legitimate government."
Dmitry Peskov, a Putin spokesman, said Russia sees the violent behavior of the violent factions within the protest movement as a "coup attempt."
And though many agree that the turmoil in Ukraine has become a proxy political battle with Moscow on one side and Brussels and Washington on the other, Russian historian and Ukraine expert Stephen Cohen is not alone when he says that people in the West, specifically in the United States, are not being allowed to see the political tensions and violence in Ukraine in a full and proper context.
Appearing on Democracy Now! Thursday morning and asked to respond to President Obama's recommendation that Yanukovych withdraw his security forces and cede Kiev to the chaos that has gripped Independence Square, Cohen said Obama's approach to the situation was nothing short of shameful. Cohen said:
[Obama] is saying that the responsibility for restoring peace is on the Ukrainian government, and it should withdraw its security forces from the streets. But let me ask you, if in Washington people throwing Molotov cocktails are marching on Congress—and these people are headed for the Ukrainian Congress—if these people have barricaded entrance to the White House and are throwing rocks at the White House security guard, would President Obama withdraw his security forces? This is—this is—and do you know what this does? And let’s escape partisanship here. I mean, lives are at stake. This incites, these kinds of statement that Obama made. It rationalizes what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license, because he’s not saying to the people in the streets, "Stop this, stop shooting policemen, stop attacking government buildings, sit down and talk."
And Ban Aris, editor of Business New Europe, who says he is very sympathetic to some of the protesters and those critical of Yanukovych, asks people to look at the situation this way: "Yanukovych is corrupt and should be voted out in 2015. But we can't just ignore the democratic process. U.S. officials were on the streets of Kiev handing out cookies to the demonstrators. Imagine if the Russian foreign minister was on the streets with Occupy Wall Street handing out cookies at Zuccotti Park."
The mention of cookies being given to opposition protesters refers to the appearance US Assistance Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Jeffery Pyatt handing out treats to protesters in Independence Square last month. Subsequently, the diplomatic pair were the source of outrage after a private conversation of them discussing the situation in the country was made public. In the conversation, Nuland was widely chided for employing the phrase "fuck the EU," but Cohen, among others, argues that the real scandal of the conversation had nothing to do with use of a curse word.
"Well, here again," said Cohen, after being played a clip of the conversation by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman,"the American political media establishment, including the right and the left and the center—because they’re all complicit in this nonsense—focused on the too sensational, they thought, aspect of that leaked conversation. She said, 'F— the European Union.'" But the significant part is what the conversation actually represented, continued Cohen: "The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine."
Neither of these critics of U.S. involvement suggest that the Kremlin is a supremely noble actor in the ongoing events and stipulate that Putin's government is also operating to serve its own financial and geopolitical interests. And the same is said of Yanukovych, who was forced in many ways to "choose" between dueling financial bailout deals offered by his European neighbors to the west and his backers in Moscow in the east.
As Aris explains:
It’s critical to understand the economics of the situation. Ukrainian hard currency reserves have dwindled from $35 to $17 billion — not enough to ensure the stability of the government. Ukraine is bankrupt. Under the terms of the EU offer of last year — which virtually nobody in the Western media seriously examined, the EU was offering $160 million per year for the next five years while just the bond repayments to IMF were greater than that. In contrast, Russia offered $15 billion in cash and immediately paid $3 billion. Another $3 billion was to be paid today but that was just suspended. Now [Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych is indeed very corrupt, but it’s being reported as if he is some sort of Putin puppet — and somehow Putin ends up demonized on the cover of the Economist. Had Yanukovych accepted the EU deal, the country would have collapsed.
As Thursday ended in Kiev, the Guardian was still tracking live updates and developments on the ground and reactions from around the world on the dynamic and complex situation.
Watch Cohen's complete interview with Democracy Now! below: