This has been a week of mounting bloodshed and chaos in Ukraine, with at least 100 people dead and the capital Kiev ablaze as police tried to clear the streets of opposition supporters. The fighting marks the worst violence so far in the three-month confrontation over Ukraine’s future — and appears to be the tipping point needed to unite the United States and European Union toward serious action to stop the carnage. Both American and EU officials made it clear Wednesday that embattled President Viktor Yanukovych and his government will face targeted sanctions if security forces continue to use live ammunition against protesters. Congress should not hesitate to carry out this threat if Yanukovych fails to comply.
Mass protests sprung up across Ukraine late last year after the government announced plans to pursue closer economic ties with Russia instead of allying with the EU, as the opposition demanded. Demonstrators now want Yanukovych’s resignation and early elections. The president, however, appears prepared to fight to the end, and the escalating violence has brought fears that he will declare an official state of emergency, bringing the army onto the streets. Neither the United States nor Europe would benefit from the inevitable regional unrest should Ukraine deteriorate into a military state, especially one under Moscow’s thumb. Vladimir Putin would no doubt bask in the idea of a revived Russian empire, making negotiation over global security and economic matters, such as the Syrian conflict, all the more polarized.
The State Department has already issued travel bans against 20 civilians and political leaders responsible for the crackdown in Kiev, including prominent cabinet members . Yet a bank freeze and additional sanctions, as proposed by Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy, would hit directly at both top government officials and the Ukrainian oligarchs who have accumulated much of their wealth in American and European financial institutions. It’s a strategy that helped to finally bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program last year.
Whether a similar result can be achieved in Ukraine remains to be seen, but at least Yanukovych and his government should now understand, as Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested, that there will be repercussions if they choose bullets over dialogue. And Congress must act quickly if they choose wrongly.