TOLUCA, Mexico — President Barack Obama warned all sides in the deadly Ukrainian conflict Wednesday that “there will be consequences if people step over the line,” but said he holds the government “primarily responsible” for showing restraint in dealing with the opposition.
“I want to be very clear as we work through these next several days in Ukraine that we’re going to be watching closely, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” Obama 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.”
Obama did not specifically threaten sanctions against Ukraine, but a senior administration official earlier in the day raised that possibility. “We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “We have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions.”
U.S. and European Union officials have been in contact about the right response to the conflict, and EU officials have also threatened sanctions. Rhodes, who was traveling with the president, said the U.S. would coordinate with the EU on whatever steps are taken.
“Events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision-making,” Rhodes said. If the government releases prisoners and pursues dialogue with the opposition, “that would obviously factor into our calculus as well,” he said.
Obama’s remarks came as he sat down with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto for a meeting. The president is in Mexico for a long one-day session with the Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a summit that is to focus on trade, security and immigration.
But as he sat down to begin his first session, Obama briefly strayed from the topics at hand to make his first public comments on the bloody clashes in the Ukrainian capital.
Anti-government protesters in Kiev set a protective ring of fire around their embattled encampment at Independence Square late Tuesday, in a defiant attempt to prolong their protest against President Viktor Yanukovych.
Obama said the U.S. condemns the violence on both sides, but noted that it’s up to the Ukrainian government to deal with “peaceful protesters in an appropriate way,” so that people are able to assemble and speak freely without fear of repression. In particular, he said, the Ukrainian military should not step into “a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”
“Regardless of how the Ukrainian people determine their own future,” he said, “it is important the people themselves make those decisions, and that’s what the United States will continue to strive to achieve.”