KIEV — With the stench of charred tires and smoldering barricades hanging in the mist, Secretary of State John F. Kerry on Tuesday visited the scene of last month’s violent clashes in Ukraine to offer an emotional boost to a new government buffeted by severe economic woes and a Russian military incursion.
The visit — and a promise of a $1 billion loan — was intended to build a relationship with Ukraine’s new leaders while demonstrating to an increasingly aggressive Russia that the United States is firmly behind Ukraine’s citizens, including the ragtag volunteer defense forces who continue to stand guard around the parliament building in Kiev.
With thousands of Russian troops in control of Crimea some 500 miles to the south, Kerry encountered Kiev’s crowds on the cobblestone streets near Independence Square, where last month dozens of demonstrators were killed in the streets.
“It was deeply moving to walk into a group of Ukrainians . . . and listen to their pleas of passion,’’ he said at a press conference later. He accused Russia of fabricating a pretext for a possible deeper invasion into Ukraine with its claims that Russians are being threatened.
“Here in the streets today, I didn’t see anybody who feels threatened,’’ he said, “except for the potential of an invasion by Russia.’’
After the dramatic visit to Kiev, Kerry headed for Paris, where he was scheduled to meet with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, to discuss US demands that Russia pull back troops that have seized control of Crimea.
Kerry is trying to provide Russian leaders with an “offramp,” an opportunity to deescalate the situation, but there were few indications Tuesday that President Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out.
While Kerry’s visit was packed with emotion, it also highlighted how the Obama administration has a limited set of practical options to build international pressure on Putin. The White House said it would approve a $1 billion loan guarantee to help prop up Ukraine’s struggling economy – a fraction of the economic aid that many specialists say the country requires.
Technical experts from the International Monetary Fund will be sent to advise how to get Ukraine’s economy on track, and specialists also will lend support to corruption investigations.
Western countries have not reached a consensus for stronger economic sanctions against Russia in response to its military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula. But on the streets where a subdued Kerry met with demonstrators and expressed his admiration for their cause, the practical issues seemed secondary to the secretary of state’s show of solidarity. He placed a lit candle at one of the shrines that have been erected to honor the 100 people who were killed by police, most of them by sniper and automatic weapons fire, along a stretch of Institutska Street.
“It’s very important for our country, because he’s showing the world that Ukrainians are fighting for their freedom,’’ said a 22-year-old student, Alexander Komissarov, who was among demonstrators Tuesday continuing to stand at barricades near Kiev’s center.
Instead of battling security forces loyal to former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, the dozens of demonstrators now stand vigil over piles of flowers and photographs of sniper victims.
As Kerry was mobbed by reporters, Kiev’s citizens looked on, gawking at the spectacle as people jostled and strained to listen to the secretary of state and a translator speak with bystanders.
“It’s like a buttress, it gives us strength,’’ said Vladimir Mitrofanov, 31, as he watched Kerry move through the crowd, greeting elderly women and a group of priests and rabbis.
Mitrofanov appeared awed by all the media attention. “Anderson Cooper, Anderson Cooper,’’ he yelled, running off to greet the CNN reporter.
Kerry himself seemed impressed by the scene, describing it in almost poetic terms during a press conference later at the fortress-like American Embassy.
“It was really quite remarkable, I have to tell you, to see the barricades, see the tires, see the barbed wire, see the bullet holes in street lamps, the extraordinary number of flowers, the people still standing beside a barrel with a fire to keep them warm,’’ he said.
The only thing he left out was a description of himself, the tall figure in a dark overcoat and somber mien.
The challenge for Kerry is translating all the goodwill on display Tuesday into an effective plan to counter Putin’s military takeover of Crimea, the strategically important Ukrainian peninsula that juts into the Black Sea and is home to a Russian majority.
With US officials expressing no appetite for a military confrontation, economic sanctions against Russia are the primary weapon. Kerry faces challenges leading a Western coalition that would back such sanctions, however, because much of Europe is supplied by oil and natural gas that flows through pipelines from Russia. One option is enforcing banking laws in ways that would target corrupt Russian oligarchs who support Putin, say experts in the United States.
While the United States is employing diplomatic measures to keep Putin from expanding his forces in Ukraine, Kerry will face great difficulty trying to reverse Putin’s Crimea incursion, which, while not violent, is reminiscent of his expansion of influence in the former Soviet republic Georgia.
“The real peril and potential pitfall for Secretary Kerry is . . . repeating what happened in Georgia,’’ said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense in the administration of President George W. Bush and is now a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank.
“He [Putin] grabs a big chunk of something, and then gives up a small piece of it, and everyone says — oh great, we have a diplomatic solution,’’ Edelman said. “But it leaves him with the fruits of his aggression.’’
The United States is seeking to isolate Putin with a drive to suspend Russia from the G-8, composed of eight major industrialized nations. But the possibility of bolstering defenses along NATO’s eastern frontier in countries such as Poland is not being discussed, a senior State Department official said.
The Ukraine crisis emerged as Kerry was already grappling with a series of intractable foreign policy challenges.
Before leaving for Kiev, he appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington to build domestic support for his controversial efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
He remains deeply involved in negotiations between Iran and world powers to halt its alleged nuclear weapons program and has staked his reputation on an interim deal that will soon expire unless a more lasting agreement can be reached.
Meanwhile, he is dealing with a series of setbacks in international efforts to negotiate an end to Syria’s bloody civil war.
Kerry left Washington on Monday evening aboard his official plane and made a stop at New York’s LaGuardia Airport to visit a new grandchild, and then flew overnight to Kiev. As the plane taxied in preparation for its Atlantic Ocean crossing, Kerry, wearing an orange hoodie sweatshirt that he favors on extended flights, showed reporters images of the new baby girl on his cellphone.
Kerry’s plane dropped into a foggy, raw day in Kiev. He was met on the tarmac by US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt and Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrii Deshchytsia.
The fog never lifted during his visit.
As night fell, his motorcade bounced over potholed roads back to his plane. He took the Ukrainian foreign minister aboard for more meetings Wednesday in Paris.