How much has the US swayed the debate in Ukraine?

The EU's top diplomat says that President Yanukovych made clear that he will sign a deal with Brussels – just a day after the US warned it might use sanctions against Ukraine.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
Pro-European Union activists take a photo at the barricades on the main street Khreschatyk during a rally in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday.

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Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych might finally be backtracking from his decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, leading to three weeks of intense protesting that threatens to topple his government.

Have threats of sanctions from the United States – which many consider belated – weighed in his calculus?

On Thursday morning, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Mr. Yanukovych might be moving towards signing the association agreement, which he rejected under pressure from Moscow last month, causing an outcry on the streets of the capital Kiev. “Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” Ms. Ashton said Thursday.

That announcement comes less than a day after the US warned that the Ukraine government's tough-fisted policies against protesters could lead to trade sanctions. Riot police converged on thousands of protesters in the capital's Independence Square Wednesday, provoking outrage from the international community.

"We are considering policy options ... sanctions are included but I am not going to outline specifics," said US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “There is a range of options that we are open to, but we are not at that point at this stage.”

Those threats came after uncharacteristically harsh words from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke of his "disgust" at the decision by Ukraine's authorities to "meet the peaceful protest ... with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity."

Agence France-Presse writes that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also phoned his Ukrainian peer, Pavlo Lebedev, earlier to warn against using military force "in any fashion.” The Pentagon said in a statement that Mr. Hagel "underlined the potential damage of any involvement by the military in breaking up the demonstrations.”

He also warned Mr. Lebedev "not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion.”

The US response, until now, had been characterized as “low key,” according to a piece earlier this month in the Washington Post.

While Mr. Kerry condemned the violent state response in Ukraine that began in early December, the US had appeared not to take a strong stance. “Asked why his response has not been more forceful,” the Post noted Dec. 3, “Kerry said that Ukraine should be free to make its own choices but that the choice should be a true reflection of national will.”

That might have something to do with Washington's delicate relationship with Russia at the moment. The two have recently helped forge deals on chemical weapons elimination in Syria and nuclear power in Iran.

In the meantime, Bloomberg reports that Russian officials in Washington this week are trying to boost trade with the US in an agreement package. “The overture from the Russian government comes during a time of tumultuous relations with the US. Friction has arisen over political unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s protection of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who acknowledged leaking classified US documents.”

An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times laments the scant attention that President Obama has paid to the situation in Ukraine.

“It is hard to imagine that Obama gives even a passing thought to Ukraine's drama, or many Republicans either, for that matter,” wrote John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN. “But there should be no mistaking that tectonic plates are being realigned in Europe, for better or worse. America's passivity and indifference will not make for a better outcome.”

But with the threat of sanctions, the tide might be turning. The EU has certainly been pushing to lure Ukraine to its side. Lady Ashton's announcement, following intense talks with Yanukovych, precedes a meeting in Brussels today, as Ukraine First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov is expected to meet European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule. 

The Irish Times writes that if Yanukovych does agree to sign the association agreement with the EU it would be an about-face.

But even before the news, anti-government protesters “were already claiming victory” after police backed away from a “showdown in Kiev's main square late Wednesday. The Times notes: “Squadrons of officers in helmets and carrying shields converged at about 1am on Independence Square, but thousands of protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at police lines to keep them away from key sites. The Ukrainian chief of police then announced that there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations.”

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