Foreign ministers from France, Germany and Poland are traveling to Ukraine in hopes of persuading all sides in the country's recent violence to pull back from the brink and restart a political dialogue. The U.S. is also urging the country's president to calm the situation and restart a dialogue with the opposition. But the U.S. and Europe seem to have few levers of influence, as the crisis spins out of control.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before reporters in Paris Wednesday to restate his hope for a negotiated settlement to the political crisis in Ukraine. He says Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has a choice to make.
"The choice is between protecting the people that he serves, all of the people, and a choice for a compromise and dialogue, versus violence and mayhem," Kerry said.
Kerry says the choice should be clear, but the U.S. and its partners are still looking for ways to influence the Ukrainian leader, who seems determined to end weeks of protests in the main square of Kiev, the capital.
Sanctions could be part of that, says Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Program on Transatlantic Relations.
"We are talking about the possibility of sanctions or other steps with our friends in Europe and elsewhere in order to try to create the environment for compromise," he says.
The U.S. needs to move quickly, though, he says. And it's not just Yanukovych and his top aides who should face sanctions. Karatnycky says the U.S. should put pressure on Ukrainian oligarchs, who control much of the country's parliament and make clear to them that they will have their bank accounts abroad frozen if they don't help calm the situation in the country.
He says various delegations from the U.S. — the Senate, the State Department and the ambassador — have undertaken "back-door communications with these leading influentials in Ukraine," but that efforts needs to be stepped up.
Others have their doubts. Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks all this talk of sanctions is too little too late.
"Sanctions are a good feel-good instrument. They will show the outside world that the U.S. and the Europeans are doing something," he says. "But they are really not likely to affect events on the ground."
The U.S. and Europe have little leverage, while the Russians have plenty — and are pushing in the opposite direction, says Weiss, who oversees research on Russia and Eurasia.
"They want the square cleared," he says. "They want the Yanukovych government to basically isolate itself and become completely dependent on Russia for external support."
Weiss — who worked in the Clinton administration on Ukraine — says this should be a time for high-level U.S.-Russian contacts on the crisis. But these are difficult times, he says, far from the days when the U.S., Russia and Ukraine came together in 1994 to help Ukraine get rid of Soviet stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
"We are just generations past that at this point. There's so much bad blood on the part of the Russians, who view any U.S. role in their neighborhood as meddlesome," Weiss says. "It's really poisonous out there right now."
But while Russia has clearly sided with Yanukovych up to this point, the Atlantic Council's Karatnycky believes Moscow may have miscalculated. He says Russia should be worried about events spilling out of control, and the protesters taking over local government offices in western Ukraine.
"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not want to have a divided country at war on his border, a country that, for example, in the west controls the levers of ... his gas to central and southern Europe," Karatnycky says. "I doubt he wants Ukraine to fall into economic decline because it will be a very big bill. He broke it, he'll own it."
But Karatnycky says that's not a message the U.S. could give to Putin. He says Washington will just have to rely on the Russians to come to that conclusion themselves — and soon.
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