New Violence Pushes Ukraine to the Brink of Civil War

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In Odessa, observers say the clashes on Friday that led to the horrific fire that killed about 40 people seemed to come out of nowhere. The city had been relatively quiet throughout the uprising in Kiev, the annexation of Crimea, and the unrest in the east. The circumstances are still murky, but what’s clear is that Right Sector groups clashed with a pro-Russian group that attacked a procession. Exactly who started the fire remains unclear. U.S. officials have privately alleged that Russia had stepped up provocations in the city in recent days.

Odessa is now a city on edge and fears are high that clashes could break out again.

Will Russia invade?

This is the million dollar question. The Kremlin insists it has no plans to do so, but authorities in Kiev, Europe, and Washington do not trust them. They point out that Russia’s assurances about its intentions in Crimea proved to be false. They also note that Russia still has tens of thousands of troops waiting along the border with Ukraine. They are ostensibly there for training exercises, but the U.S. officials say they are poised to enter Ukraine if the order is given.

How did this start?

The uprising began in late November, when then-President Viktor Yanukovich rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He said it provided his country better access to badly needed funds, as Ukraine’s economy is teetering on the brink of default. Yet many saw his move as a rejection of a European future in favor of one in the Kremlin’s hands. Street protests began in central Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan. At times the protests swelled to over a hundred thousand people.

Finally, in February, Yanukovich’s forces tried to clear the square and clashes broke out. Eventually, after a peace deal was signed, Yanukovich fled and the riot police melted away. The new pro-Western government took over and scheduled elections for May 25.

Will the U.S. intervene?

President Obama has ruled out the use of force in Ukraine. Instead, he is relying on a combination of international sanctions and pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop what the United States says is Russia’s continued meddling and provocation in Ukraine.

The U.S. has so far enacted three rounds of sanctions. The last two rounds have targeted members of President Putin’s inner circle. The White House warned that it could slap even harsher sanctions, potentially targeting Russia’s lucrative energy and mining sectors, if Russian troops cross the border.

So far, Washington’s allies in Europe have issued their own sanctions, but have been reluctant to go along with such tough measures since they rely on Russia for a significant portion of their energy imports and have larger trading relationships with Russia than the United States does.

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