This story was updated on 2/20/14 at 8:45 a.m.
An hours-old cease-fire in Ukraine fell apart Wednesday night following reports of gunshots and renewed violence between activists and government security forces in Kiev, resulting in the deaths of at least 18 people in protest camps within the capital city.
President Viktor Yanukovych announced the truce late Wednesday ahead of a planned meeting with three European Union delegates Thursday. The EU will also hold an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss sanctions against officials responsible for human rights abuses.
Rumors spread throughout Ukraine that security forces were planning new crackdowns on protesters Wednesday night into Thursday.
The top official in Kiev has resigned from the president’s party following the second round of clashes in two days, the Associated Press reports. An AP reporter counted at least 18 dead bodies in the protest camps there as of early Thursday morning.
Activists and journalists on Twitter posted pictures of thick black smoke rising from the capital as fire snaked across barricades in Independence Square, considered ground zero for the “EuroMaidan” protesters.
It looks like Breugel in Kiev. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters) pic.twitter.com/ztVaMmc8Cb— Doug Saunders (@DougSaunders) February 20, 2014
This story was originally posted on 2/19/14 at 6:34 p.m.
Opponents in Ukraine reportedly have reached a truce following months of bitter and deadly turmoil in the Eastern European nation.
The Associated Press reported late Wednesday that the office of President Viktor Yanukovych had reached the truce with leaders of the opposition. Protests began in late November following Yanukovych's decision to ally with the Russian government in exchange for an economic bailout, instead of signing new accords with the European Union.
A senior U.S. administration official called the reported truce "a small glimmer of hope," and said the U.S. would watch very closely in the coming days to see if the cease-fire holds and whether a political transition actually takes place.
The Ukrainian government remains on a collision course with the West if it chooses to proceed with recent deadly crackdowns, such as the violence that occurred Tuesday night.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday there would be “consequences if people step over the line” in Ukraine, specifically calling on the government to “to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters.” The State Department has banned issuing visas to 20 members of the Ukrainian government it believes are complicit in human rights abuses against the protesters.
The EU also hastily scheduled an emergency meeting for Thursday morning to discuss using sanctions to directly target members of the Ukrainian government and security services it says are “responsible for the violence.”
Signs of a continued escalation remain within the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The Associated Press reported late Wednesday that Yanukovych fired the head of the Ukrainian military, which traditionally has refrained from operating against its own citizens. Experts and observers believe this is an attempt by the president to shore up power ahead of potential further hostile action against the protesters.A statement issued by the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, warned that it planned on Wednesday to “begin an anti-terrorist operation on the territory of Ukraine” in response to “the escalation of violent confrontation and massive use of weapons on the part of extremist groups.” The government has repeatedly denied claims it is responsible for fatal gunshot wounds incurred during the ongoing protests, and said in this latest statement that protesters have captured 1,500 firearms and 100,000 ammunition rounds.
“Violence is being applied consciously and purposefully by means of arsons, killings, taking of hostages and intimidation of citizens with criminal purposes,” SBU chief Oleksandr Yakimenko said in the statement. “This is done with use of firearms. These are not just manifestations of terrorism anymore – these are concrete terrorists acts!"
The Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C. was not aware of such an operation.
The EU formally declared in a February resolution that forces loyal to the Ukrainian government engage in “a policy of intimidation, repression, torture and violence against protesters." It called on Yanukovych, among other demands, to cease deploying riot police and other forces in “provoking, kidnapping, harassing, torturing, beating and humiliating supporters” of the protest movement, known as “EuroMaidans.”
All 28 foreign delegates of the EU were scheduled to meet Thursday morning to consider implementing further “restrictive measures,” or sanctions, against certain members of the Ukrainian government. Sources familiar with the deliberations say they likely will target midlevel operators, such as those who oversee the security services cracking down on the protesters. The sanctions would freeze their bank accounts throughout Europe and restrict their ability to travel legally.
EU sanctions, once passed, have proved effective in the past. The organization was faced with a similar situation in Belarus in 2011 when the former Soviet state cracked down on protesters. EU sanctions are also credited with helping bring the Iranian government to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.
All 28 nations of the EU must agree for such sanctions to be put in place. The entire process is expected to take several weeks. EU delegates from France, Poland and Germany are expected to meet with Yanukovych on Thursday.
So far the EU and U.S. have not operated wholly in tandem in an approach to quelling the violence in Ukraine. This reported disconnect grabbed headline space earlier in February following a leaked phone conversation between U.S. negotiator Victoria Nuland and a colleague in which Nuland reportedly disparaged the effectiveness of the EU.
But Obama issued a strong, if ill-defined, warning to Yanukovych and his government while speaking from Mexico with his counterpart there.
“We are going to be watching very carefully and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama said. “We also expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful. And we'll be monitoring very carefully the situation, recognizing, along with our European partners and the international community, there will be consequences if people step over the line.
“That includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians,” he said.
Multiple experts who spoke with U.S. News expressed grave concerns for the immediate future of Ukraine. Damon Wilson, a former senior director for European affairs for the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, says reports of further crackdowns paint a grim future for the eastern European nation.
“This is a powder keg. This is extraordinarily dangerous,” says Wilson, now with the D.C.-based think tank the Atlantic Council. “I see this as an announcement … that Yanukovych is pulling the trigger.”
Yanukovych’s decision to fire the military chief spells his desire to “ensure that the levers of [his] power are under control,” Wilson says.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his Ukrainian counterpart, Minister of Defense Pavlo Lebedyev, in December to urge him against using the military against Ukrainian civilians. Lebedyev told Hagel “it is President Yanukovych's position not to use the Armed Forces against the protesters" and said he would pass Hagel's message directly to Yanukovych, according to a readout of the call.Wilson says the EU should pass sanctions quickly, and the measures could prompt those in leadership positions at Ukrainian security agencies to think twice about further action, and to disobey orders or even defect.
Citing Russia’s backing of the Ukrainian government, Wilson believes the conflict could continue in size and scale until it is comparable to the ongoing civil war in Syria, where the regime also receives Russian support.
Updated on Feb 20, 2014: This article was updated to reflect current conditions in Kiev, Ukraine.