Protesting Ukrainians Look to U.S. for Support As Their Gov't Tilts Toward Russia

December 2, 2013 - 5:34 AM


Demonstrators gather in downtown Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, protesting the government’s refusal to sign an agreement with the European Union. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

( – Many Ukrainians who favor a future linked to Europe rather than Russia are looking to the United States for backing as they call for the resignation of their Kremlin-friendly president.

After days of anti-government protests turned violent in Kiev at the weekend, opposition supporters were trying to block administration buildings early Monday, in support of calls for President Viktor Yanukovich to resign.

His government’s unexpected decision to change course after years of planning, suspending talks for European integration in favor of closer trade ties with Russia, has unleashed some of the most widespread protests in the country since the 2004 “Orange revolution.”

The shock announcement, which followed sustained pressure from Russia, came just days before a European Union (E.U.) summit where Ukraine was to have signed trade and association agreements. At Friday’s summit in Lithuania, two other former Soviet states, Georgia and Moldova, did sign agreements, but E.U. leaders had to tell Ukraine its offer remained on the table.

In recent days, some Ukrainians have turned to the White House “We the People” petition website, where of the 20 most recent petitions featuringed early Monday, at least 11 related to the Ukraine situation.

The two that had garnered the most support were one calling on the U.S. to impose visa and financial sanctions against Yanukovich and members of his cabinet, which attracted more than 126,000 signatures in five days; and one calling on the U.S. to support the “peaceful overthrow” of the government, which picked up more than 56,000 signatures in just two days.

The White House commits to formally responding to any petition receiving at least 100,000 signatures within 30 days.

Since Yanukovich’s Nov. 21 policy reversal, the State Department has twice described European integration as “the surest course” to prosperity and democracy for Ukraine.

It also condemned the weekend violence in Kiev, and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt joined E.U. counterparts Sunday in urging “all parts of Ukrainian society to resolve their differences peacefully.”

Secretary of State John Kerry was to have attended an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meeting in Kiev later this week, but the day after Ukraine announced its decision on the E.U. agreement the State Department said assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland would attend instead.

Moscow wants Ukraine – the second most populous former Soviet republic, after Russia itself – to join a customs union currently comprising Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. It had warned Ukraine that looking towards Europe would amount to “economic suicide.”

The Obama administration has not directly criticized Russia for its role in the Ukrainian shift, although E.U. leaders have done so.

European Council president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso in a joint statement last week acknowledged “the external pressure” faced by Ukraine and said they “strongly disapprove of the Russian position and actions in this respect.”

“Stronger relations with the European Union do not come at the expense of relations between our eastern partners and their other neighbors, such as Russia,” they added.

On Sunday the foreign ministers of Sweden and Poland, the two E.U. member-states that have led the outreach to countries to the bloc’s east, echoed that criticism and voiced support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

“We are impressed that so many Ukrainians are braving the cold to protest their president’s abrupt decision to withdraw from signing the association agreement with the European Union,” said Carl Bildt and Radosaw Sikorski.

They called on all parties to keep the protests peaceful.

“We are convinced that the Ukrainian people will realize their dream of a European future.”

East-West tussle

In 2004 Yanukovich, a pro-Russian opposition leader and former prime minister, was accused of trying to rig Ukraine’s presidential election, an exercise so marred by ballot-stuffing, intimidation and other problems that the U.S. refused to recognize it and E.U. member states withdrew their ambassadors in protest.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, by contrast, congratulated him on his “victory” at a time when the results were still being widely disputed.

Supporters of Yanukovich’s pro-Western rival, Viktor Yushchenko, took to the streets of Kiev in a mass protest movement that eventually prompted the supreme court to order a revote.

Yushchenko won, and began to move Ukraine away from Russia’s orbit, angering the Kremlin by seeking both E.U. and NATO membership. Putin accused the U.S. of backing the so-called Orange revolution, as well as similar events in Georgia in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan two years later.

Russia’s relations with the Ukraine were strained over the following years, until Yanukovich was elected president in 2010, defeating both Yushchenko and another pro-Western politician, former prime minister and Orange revolution co-leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Yanukovich moved Ukraine back towards Moscow, shelving his predecessor’s NATO ambitions and extending a lease for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to use the Crimean port of Sevastopol for at least another 25 years. (Both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had wanted the Russian ships and personnel to leave when the lease expired in 2017.)

Tymoshenko was convicted in 2011 of abuse of office and jailed for seven years. The U.S. and E.U. both said her trial was political, and in the run-up to the now-aborted Europe integration agreement E.U. envoys had been trying to secure her freedom, formally on medical grounds.

Last week Tymoshenko said in a letter to supporters she had started a hunger strike in solidarity with the pro-E.U. protestors.