MOSCOW -- Russian officials and Kremlin-influenced media stepped up their accusations Thursday that Western countries were fomenting the violence in Ukraine and warned that sanctions imposed by the United States and under consideration by the European Union were tantamount to “blackmail.”
A truce between the Ukrainian government and opposition protest leaders fell apart hours after it was reached late Wednesday. Renewed fighting between police and protesters took at least 22 lives Thursday, bringing the death toll from three days of fiery clashes in Kiev to about 50 and possibly more, opposition sources reported. The Ukrainian Health Ministry said 35 were killed Thursday.
“We are deeply concerned with what is happening and how the Western states are commenting on it and are trying to affect it,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia Today television, calling Western media accounts of the Ukrainian unrest “extremely perverted.”
Lavrov took up the line set down by the Kremlin earlier this week that the protesters who have occupied central Kiev for three months, demanding Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s resignation, have been co-opted by extremists driving the country toward civil war.
“The opposition cannot or does not want to dissociate itself from extremists,” Lavrov said in a statement televised from Baghdad, where he was on an official visit. “The U.S. lays all the blame on the Ukrainian government -- this is a double standard.”
Lavrov said the European Union’s threat to impose targeted sanctions on Ukrainian officials blamed for excessive use of force against the demonstrators “resembles blackmail.”
In a separate statement from Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry deemed the individual sanctions imposed Wednesday by the United States barring some Ukrainian officials from obtaining U.S. visas as “absolutely illegitimate” under international law and likely to aggravate the volatile situation in Ukraine.
[Updated, 11:30 a.m. PST Feb. 20: Later Thursday, the EU issued a statement that it will impose sanctions on Ukrainian officials found to have authorized the bloody crackdown. No immediate list of those targeted was released. In addition, the Associated Press, citing Ukrainian authorities and a doctor treating protesters, raised the death toll for the day to 70 demonstrators and three police officers.]
[Updated, 9:58 a.m. PST Feb. 20: The Obama administration said Thursday that it was outraged by images of Ukrainian security forces firing automatic weapons on their own people. "We urge President Yanukovich to immediately withdraw his security forces from downtown Kiev and to respect the right of peaceful protest, and we urge protesters to express themselves peacefully," the White House said in a statement.
"The use of force will not resolve the crisis -- clear steps must be taken to stop the violence and initiate meaningful dialogue that reduces tension and addresses the grievances of the Ukrainian people. The United States will work with our European allies to hold those responsible for violence accountable and to help the Ukrainian people get a unified and independent Ukraine back on the path to a better future.]
Russia and Ukraine have deeply integrated industries and trade, and the Kremlin has been pressuring Kiev to remain within Russia's economic and social orbit more than two decades after Ukraine gained independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The confrontations in western Ukrainian cities began three months ago after Yanukovich unilaterally ditched plans for his country to enter into an economic association agreement with the European Union. Pro-European urbanites in Kiev, Lvov, Odessa and other major cities began protesting against Yanukovich and his Party of Regions in late November, and the confrontation escalated last month when Ukrainian security forces first tried to disperse what was then a peaceful encampment of opposition protesters.
The standoff dramatically escalated Tuesday when parliamentary deputies loyal to Yanukovich delayed debate on opposition-backed proposals to curtail presidential powers and restore the legislative authority defined in Ukraine's 2004 constitution.
Three European Union foreign ministers – from Germany, France and Poland – traveled to Kiev on Thursday for talks with Yanukovich, meeting for two hours as gunfire and petrol bombs flew nearby at Independence Square, also known as Maidan.
Their EU colleagues gathered in Brussels to consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government but postponed action to await an updated assessment of the confrontation from the delegation in Kiev.
Russian television has carried live, nearly round-the-clock coverage of the Ukraine unrest, presenting the opposition action as a "revolution" by radicals and fascists bent on ousting a legitimately elected leader.
On Thursday, Rossiya-24 television carried an interview with the head of the association of veterans of the 1980s Soviet occupation and conflict in Afghanistan, Sergei Goncharov. He rejected foreign officials and media descriptions of the Kiev protesters as “peaceful,” calling the Maidan occupiers militants who are waging wage war against the government.
The channel has carried extensive footage of protesters hurling cobblestone and Molotov cocktails at police cowering behind metal shields. The broadcasts have also disseminated mostly images of anti-government activists beating police with clubs or plucking them from their cordons and taking them to opposition-controlled territory.
One news flash playing across the screen as a correspondent in Kiev described the situation as an extremist putsch said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “appealed to the West to honestly assess the protesters’ intentions.”