The Obama administration slapped visa restrictions on 20 senior Ukrainian officials Wednesday to punish “the full chain of command” behind the bloody crackdown on a protest camp in Kiev, where at least 25 people died in street violence this week.
The visa sanctions represent the toughest U.S. action yet after three months of clashes between the security forces of President Viktor Yanukovych and protesters unhappy over the government’s decision in November to forgo a trade deal with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia.
Visa restrictions are among the least harsh sanctions the United States could impose, and some Ukrainian protesters and their supporters scoffed at the U.S. move via Twitter and other social media sites. U.S. officials have vowed to impose tougher measures, most likely in lockstep with the EU, but analysts who monitor Ukraine – and its patron, Russia – say there’s little more the United States could do, especially at a time when the Obama administration is counting on help from Moscow on bigger priorities such as negotiating an end to the Syrian civil war and a nuclear agreement with Iran.
In Mexico for a summit with the leaders of Canada and Mexico, President Barack Obama sought to play down any rivalry with Russia over Ukraine or Syria.
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The U.S., he said, isn’t trying to revive “some Cold War chessboard.” He added that he doesn’t “think there’s a competition between the United States and Russia.”
The situations in Ukraine and Syria are “an expression of the hopes and aspirations of the people inside Syria and the people inside the Ukraine."
“Our goal is to make sure that the people of the Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future and the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, he held Yanukovych’s government “primarily responsible” for the violence, but he also offered a caution to the protesters.
“We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful and we’ll be monitoring very closely the situation,” he said during a meeting with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada in Toluca, Mexico.
The Ukrainian Health Ministry said 25 people were killed in the violence, which began Tuesday night and extended into the morning hours Wednesday. Among those were 10 police officers, according to the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s leading English-language newspaper.
Obama added that “there will be consequences if people step over the line.”
Many experts said U.S. actions are unlikely to drive the conflict in Ukraine.
“The Obama administration is moving ahead on the threats they have made public, but I seriously doubt they will have any effect on domestic Ukrainian politics,” said Anton Fedyashin, a Russia expert who directs the Initiative for Russian Culture at American University in Washington.
He said U.S. strategy in Ukraine is complicated by the fact that the Yanukovych government was democratically elected.
“The democratic countries of the West are now having to deal with the very messy situation where democratically elected governments do not fully represent the interests of sections of their populations,” he said. “This makes issuing sanctions very complicated.”
A U.S. official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy surrounding Ukraine, said the visa ban covers civilian leaders of the security forces. Police – not the military – moved on the public square that’s been ground zero for the protests, the official explained.
The U.S. official also took aim at Russian claims that the United States and other Western powers were fueling the Ukrainian crisis by meddling and “courting the protesters.” The official countered that the U.S. position has been “transparent” – to allow for peaceful protests and to foster dialogue that will move Ukraine toward free and fair elections.
But outside analysts said the United States’ position, and that of the European Union, hasn’t been clear or consistent.
“Neither the EU or U.S. has come up with a clear policy that’s likely to be effective. What you have seen is policies that have been made in response to unexpected events,” said Andrew Weiss, who served as a Ukraine expert in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Now the vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington research center, he agrees that sanctions are likely to have limited influence.
“To my mind, all of that stuff is nice declaratory policy. It will make people feel good, but it will be unable to change the calculations for Yanukovych,” he said.
Weiss noted that Yanukovych has enough political and financial support to weather visa sanctions issued by American and European nations. Moreover, he said, protesters in the opposition have become disorganized, complicating how forceful any other American response can be.
“It’s no longer the vague pro-European, pro-reform movement,” he said. “The administration at this point would much rather prefer the Yanukovych government to limp along until the 2015 elections,” when Yanukovych’s term ends.
Steve Pifer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said the violence surprised him but that U.S. policymakers could take some credit for the truce that was announced late Wednesday in Ukraine.
“I think the U.S. government has handled this accurately for the past three months,” he said. “They’ve been pushing both sides to dialogue. What’s the alternative? More violence.”