Putin speaks on Ukraine; protesters rebuild barricades

Protesters in the Ukraine capital, Kiev, erected a new barricade in Independence Square on Thursday to replace one dismantled by police the previous day.
(Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles Times)

KIEV, Ukraine -- As thousands of pro-European-integration protesters were rebuilding barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square which were destroyed the previous day by police, Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained a focus Thursday on Ukraine.

Putin, in his annual state of the union address, said that Ukraine’s leaders are continuing to consult with Moscow about about post-Soviet economic reintegration.

“Even before all these [protests] which we now see in Kiev … Ukraine more than once declared its interest in joining some agreements of the customs union [with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan],” Putin said in his televised speech. “We are not imposing anything on anybody. If our friends have a desire for joint work we are ready to continue this work.”

Putin said that he expected Kyrgyzstan and Armenia to join the organization soon. “I am sure that real achievements of Eurasian integration will only enhance interest on the part of our other neighbors including our Ukrainian partners too,” Putin added.

Putin’s comments made clear his continued designs on Ukraine and that “by hook or by crook” he will seek to try and drag it into the so-called Eurasian Union, his long-cherished idea “of reincarnating some semblance of the Soviet Union,” said Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s ex-foreign minister.


“As long as Ukraine is suspended in limbo after [President Viktor] Yanukovich failed to sign [an] association agreement with the European Union, Putin will continue to apply pressure on Ukraine to get it back into Russia’s orbit,” Tarasyuk, a lawmaker currently responsible for foreign relations in the opposition movement, said in an interview with The Times.

Yanukovich is scheduled to visit Moscow on Dec. 17 to discuss the road map for closer economic integration with Russia. On Wednesday, he promised to EU envoy Catherine Ashton to swiftly resolve the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine, the worst since its 2004 revolution.

On Wednesday, several thousand riot police armed with clubs and shields converged on the protest encampment in Independence Square, followed by hundreds of municipal workers and emergency ministry officers who dismantled barricades while police tussled with thousands of protesters.

Authorities said later they simply wanted to bring order to Kiev’s central thoroughfare and adjacent streets. They were forced, however, to retreat by the protesters.

Critics say Yanukovich is simply playing for time with calls for dialogue. The opposition continues to demand that the government free detained activists and punish authorities responsible for the brutal dispersal of students, said opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, the reigning World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, who doesn’t conceal his presidential ambitions.

Presidential and parliamentary elections could solve the current impasse, Klitschko said.

The European Parliament on Thursday condemned Russia’s political and economic pressure on Ukraine.

By Thursday afternoon, Independence Square looked like, as one protester put it, “an invincible fortress.” Snow, slush and ice had been put in sacks and used to build walls fortified by welded iron structures, iron garden benches and truck tires. Tarasyuk said the more time Yanukovich spends in Moscow, the more support he loses in Ukraine.

Protesters here sounded more determined than ever to join the EU and condemned Yanukovich for his continued consultations with Moscow.

“I can understand why Putin is so desperate to prevent Ukraine from integrating with Europe,” said Alexander Zub, 20, a law student from the southern city of Kherson who was actively helping construct the fortifications. . “It comes like a horror dream to Putin who still sees Ukraine as a key part of a new empire he is trying to build.”

“The way Yanukovich keeps going to Moscow for advice serves as solid proof for those who were undecided up to now as to who his real boss is and who is manipulating Yanukovich behind our backs,” businessman Dmytro Prokhorenko, 41, told The Times.


Death toll from Philippines typhoon surpasses 6,000

Snow closes roads in Israel, is a source of wonder in Egypt

North Korea says leader’s uncle executed for trying to seize power