Obama condemns Ukraine violence

President Obama said Wednesday he was hopeful that a declared truce in Ukraine could provide “space” for peace talks after a whirlwind day that saw U.S. and European leaders threaten to impose sanctions against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

“We've obviously seen reports of a truce between the government and the opposition,” Obama said at a summit with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Pena Nieto. “If the truce is implemented, it could provide space for the sides to resolve their disagreements peacefully.”

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The announced truce came after Western leaders, including Obama, threatened to move forward with sanctions following a bloody crackdown that left at least 25 Ukranian protesters and police dead in overnight violence. Obama condemned the “unacceptable violence” and said the Ukranian government was responsible for restoring the peace.

“We continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we've seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity and move the country forward,” Obama said.

The crackdown on protesters who have flooded the streets of Kiev since Yanukovych opted to accept a Russian economic bailout over a trade deal with the European Union was largely seen as carried out at the urging of Moscow.

Obama said that while Russian influence was “worth noting,” the U.S. did not see the situation as “some Cold War chessboard.”

“I don’t think theres a competition between the United States and Russia, I think this is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of the people” in Ukraine, Obama said.

He added that the threat of sanctions had to do ”with whether or not the people of Ukraine can choose their own destiny,” rather than a greater political rivalry.

But while Obama expressed guarded optimism about news of a truce, Harper said it remained “essential that we take action” following the bloodshed.

“At the end of the day, the Ukrainian government has to be held responsible for settling this situation,” Harper said. “The Ukrainian government took actions, actions that were not only unpopular, but actions that put at risk nature and the aspirations of Ukraine of becoming an independent nation.”

Congress is also putting pressure on Obama to immediately punish the Ukrainian government following the unrest.

Both the House and Senate are considering new sanctions that could come up for a vote soon after Congress reconvenes next week. 

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are putting together bipartisan legislation that has the blessing of the panel's chairman. And the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel also called for “immediate action.”

“I urge the Administration to take immediate action and impose targeted sanctions, including visa restrictions,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) tweeted Wednesday, “and the freezing of all financial assets, against those individuals responsible for authorizing and engaging in violence.”

Engel said he believes the administration “has the necessary authorities to take appropriate actions” but Congress “should also consider additional Congressional action, if necessary.” The House passed his resolution last week that “encourages” the administration to consider “targeted sanctions” against anyone authorizing or engaging in the use of force in Ukraine.

Meanwhile in the Senate, European Affairs subpanel Chairman Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are working on their own sanctions legislation.

“We have begun working together on legislation that would impose targeted sanctions on government officials and other persons who have committed, ordered, or materially supported acts of violence against peaceful citizens in Ukraine, or who are complicit in the rollback of Ukraine’s democracy," McCain and Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. "These sanctions should not, and will not, target the people or the country of Ukraine as a whole. Instead, they will be narrowly focused on those individuals who must be held accountable for violating human rights and undermining democracy. We remain in contact with the Administration and look forward to working together on this legislation.”

The two lawmakers visited Ukraine in December and joined protesters demanding that Yanukovych go forward with an association agreement with the European Union instead of turning toward Russia.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is working on similar legislation.

And panel chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) suggested Wednesday his committee will be ready to act as soon as Congress reconvenes.

“The actions of President Yanukovych and his government are deplorable and the time is now to apply sanctions against the Ukrainian government for gross human rights violations,” Menendez said in a statement. “I expect the Administration with congressional support to act swiftly on this issue of critical importance.”

--This report was updated at 9:40 p.m.

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