WASHINGTON, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Paris alongside French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, responded Wednesday to the deadly violence in Kiev that left at least 20 anti-government protesters dead.
Kerry expressed the Obama administration's distress "by the scenes of violence, by the level of abuse that the citizens in the streets have felt over the course of the last days." He called upon Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych "to make a choice ... between protecting the people that he serves, all of the people, and a choice for a compromise and dialogue versus violence and mayhem."
On the opportunity for compromise and dialogue, the secretary went on to say, "We are still convinced there is still space for that to happen." The administration is also considering imposing sanctions or similar actions "with our friends in Europe and elsewhere in order to try to create the environment for compromise."
Euromaidan demonstrations began in November 2013 following President Yanukovych's announcement that Ukraine would not join the EU and have continued for months, despite the freezing temperatures and threat of violence. Protesters at Euromaidan rallies, led by the government opposition parties, have voiced their opposition to Ukraine's economic ties to Russia and have demanded constitutional reform, a more balanced government power structure and the removal of the president.
French Foreign Minister Fabius, joined by the German and Polish foreign ministers, was scheduled to travel to Kiev on Thursday to "gather the latest information regarding the situation on the ground" and then travel to Brussels -- the seat of the European Union -- to discuss sanctions.
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden spoke by phone with the Ukrainian president. According to the White House, Biden "called on President Yanukovych to pull back government forces and to exercise maximum restraint." The Ukrainian government, the vice president emphasized, "bears special responsibility to de-escalate the situation" and must engage in "immediate dialogue" with leaders of the opposition.
In a moderated teleconference with an unnamed senior administration official on Wednesday evening, the State Department provided a background briefing on the situation in Ukraine. The official described the devolution from promising "positive momentum ... over the weekend" that included the government's release of jailed protesters and the withdrawal of protesters from key government buildings in line with a recently passed amnesty law. The State Department, according to the official, was "cautiously optimistic" that the next step would be presidential dialogues with leaders of the opposition concerning political and electoral reforms.
"But rather than engaging seriously on that, there was no invitation to continue dialogue. Instead, the president’s party, the Party of Regions blocked any effort in the parliament to have a conversation about that, blocked all legislation from coming to the floor, which led to tensions on the streets. ... yesterday there was a trading of fire back and forth ... And after that, the government unleashed riot police on the Maidan. ... And then today, an explosion of further violence across Ukraine ..."
In response to the Ukrainian government's violent actions against protesters, the State Department announced Wednesday that it had instituted a ban on visas for approximately 20 Ukrainian government officials and others deemed complicit in protester violence. Those sanctions may be removed if "political compromise and a transition government can take Ukraine forward."