KIEV – Ukrainian demonstrators on Thursday celebrated holding three weeks of protests over the government’s decision to reject a historic EU deal, while the United States meanwhile threatened sanctions after a failed police raid on the protest barricades.
Tensions in the capital eased after a showdown in the early hours of Wednesday when riot police tried to drive the protest camp out of the iconic Independence Square in the ex-Soviet country’s deepest political crisis in a decade.
President Viktor Yanukovych — whose refusal to sign an integration deal with the EU sparked the first protests on Nov. 21 — promised at talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton he would sign the pact, she said.
But Yanukovych remained under immense pressure after riot police Wednesday failed to shift thousands of demonstrators from Independence Square in a raid that drew international condemnation.
Protesters fortified their positions overnight by filling plastic bags with snow which they used as sandbags as well as pouring water over the barricades in sub-zero temperatures.
“The night went well,” protester Oleg Polivko said after standing guard by the structure.
He said the failed raid “was a good lesson” for the authorities. “They made their conclusions: you cannot fight with your own people.”
Over a thousand protesters spent the night in the square, bolstered by their ability to withstand the police. The raid left about 30 people injured.
“We have to last at least six more days,” called out singer Ruslana, who won the Eurovision contest in 2004 and has been an Independence Square fixture for days, performing the national anthem for protesters a cappella daily.
The central square is where the Orange Revolution unfolded in 2004 and forced the scrapping of a fraud-tainted election, bringing a pro-Western government to power. It swelled with hundreds of thousands of protesters last weekend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Ukraine is still welcome to join work on the Moscow-led Customs Union, which he sees as a future alternative to the European Union.
“We are not imposing anything on anyone, but if our friends want joint work we are ready for a continuation for that work at expert level,” Putin said in his annual address to the nation.
“Our integration project is based on equal rights, on real economic interests,” said Putin.
The EU has said it can’t sign a free trade agreement with Ukraine if the ex-Soviet country becomes a member of the Customs Union.
Ashton, who met Yanukovych twice in Kiev in the last two days, said the Ukrainian leader told her he “intends” to sign an EU association accord that he shelved last month under Russian pressure.
Yanukovych “made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” she said after returning to Brussels. However, no time commitment was given.
The Ukraine government has never formally abandoned its plan to sign the deal.
After the most recent scuffles, Washington upped the pressure by saying it was considering a range of options in response to the attempted crackdown.
“Sanctions are included, but I am not going to outline specifics,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel called Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Lebedev, warning against using military force “in any fashion” against the increasingly confident protesters.
On Tuesday, Yanukovych is expected to travel to Russia for new talks with Putin after the two discussed a strategic partnership treaty last week, which risks infuriating the opposition further.
A senior Ukrainian delegation was set to travel to Brussels later Thursday, with First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov expected to meet Stefan Fuele, European commissioner for enlargement and European neighborhood policy.
After three weeks of protests and occasional clashes in which hundreds have been wounded, a way out of the crisis appears to be nowhere in sight.
“Yanukovych is now down to two simple choices, either accept a deal with the EU/IMF or accept what has been tabled by Russia,” said economist Chris Weafer of consultancy Macro Advisory. “Either solution will lead to a much more divided Ukraine and almost kill off any chance for his re-election in February 2015.”
The opposition led by several key figures, including world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, rejected an offer of talks before Yanukovych dismissed his government and punished riot police.
“Our demands should be implemented. No negotiations until then,” Oleg Tyagnybok, leader of nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, said on Twitter.