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By Mark Felsenthal
TOLUCA, Mexico Feb 19 U.S. President Barack
Obama called on Ukraine's armed forces on Wednesday to stay out
of the country's political crisis and warned that there would be
consequences for those who "step over the line."
Using his toughest language so far in response to a
Ukrainian conflict that has drawn threats of U.S. and European
Union sanctions, Obama denounced the violence and put the onus
on Ukraine's government to reach a peaceful resolution.
"We hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for
making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an
appropriate way, that the Ukrainian people are able to assemble
and speak freely about their interests without fear of
repression," Obama told reporters at the start of a North
American summit in Mexico.
Obama and other Western leaders stepped up pressure on
Ukraine's Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, after 26
people were killed in the country's worst violence since
independence from the Soviet Union.
Shortly after Obama spoke, Yanukovich said he had agreed to
a "truce" with opposition leaders and a start to negotiations to
prevent further bloodshed. The crisis, complete with Cold
War-style recriminations between Washington and Moscow, has
centered on Independence Square in Kiev where riot police
battled protesters on Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters ahead of a meeting with Mexican
President Enrique Pena Nieto, Obama urged both sides in Ukraine
to avoid violence but singled out the country's military for a
specific warning against intervening in the crisis.
"We expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint," he
said. "We've also said we expect peaceful protesters to remain
peaceful, and we'll be monitoring very closely the situation,
recognizing that with our European partners and the
international community there will be consequences if people
step over the line.
"And that includes making sure the Ukrainian military does
not step into what should be a set of issues that can be
resolved by civilians," he said.
Obama's rhetoric carried echoes of the "red line" he
declared early on in Syria's three-year-old civil war against
President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, a warning
he failed to enforce with military action last year.
Obama's admonition to Ukraine's military came after its
defense ministry said the armed forces might take part in a
countrywide anti-terrorist operation organized by the state
security service. It had previously said that troops could only
be used domestically if a state of emergency were declared.
The Pentagon on Wednesday also renewed warnings for Ukraine
to keep its military away from anti-government protests.
"The Department of Defense is encouraged that the Ukrainian
armed forces have not been brought into this crisis. We urge
them to remain on the sidelines," said Pentagon spokesman
Colonel Steve Warren.
While neither Obama nor the Pentagon gave any details on the
possible repercussions, U.S. officials said on Wednesday they
were consulting with EU officials on sanctions against those
responsible for the violence in Ukraine.
"The scenes that we saw in Kiev yesterday were completely
outrageous and have no place in the 21st century," White House
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters.
He said the United States would talk to European nations
about the situation in Ukraine ahead of an EU foreign ministers
meeting set for Brussels on Thursday to decide on sanctions.
The EU shifted course on Wednesday and moved to impose
financial and travel restrictions on Ukrainian officials, even
though diplomats have doubts about the effectiveness of
Washington, which had complained earlier that the Europeans
were not moving urgently enough on sanctions, was considering
similar measures and expected broad congressional support, U.S.
government and congressional sources said.
The Obama administration expects the number of people
affected by sanctions to be "in the double digits" and to
include high-ranking Ukrainian law enforcement officials "all
the way up," a U.S. congressional source said.
If all EU member states agree - and diplomats indicate there
will be strong support - the EU will target those deemed
responsible for the violence, including members of Yanukovich's
government, although not the president himself.
But the Obama administration was taking care not to jump out
ahead of its EU allies.
The crisis erupted after Yanukovich spurned a broad trade
deal with the European Union and accepted a $15 billion Russian
Rhodes said the United States would like to see Russia
support efforts to reduce tensions in Ukraine, though there have
been no signs of cooperation between the former Cold War foes to
quell the crisis.
"I think the message we've delivered to the Russians is
that, again, we are not in some competition for the future of
Ukraine. Frankly, our interest is that the people of Ukraine are
able to determine their future, not any external actor," he
(Additional reporting by Eric Beech, Roberta Rampton, Patricia
Zengerle, Matt Spetalnick, Phil Stewart; Writing by Matt
Spetalnick; Editing by Alistair Bell and Douglas Royalty)