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European diplomats work behind the scenes to halt Ukraine violence

February 20, 2014 at 6:11 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: In Ukraine, as the battle between government forces and protesters, as we saw, became bloodier and deadlier, diplomats labored behind the scenes to find a way to end the violence.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They couldn’t even get through the streets. Fighting prevented European Union foreign ministers from reaching the presidential palace in Kiev this morning.

They made it by the afternoon and are reported to be preparing for more talks overnight. President Yanukovych reportedly left the meeting at one point to call President Putin, but there was no deal. The ministers from France, Germany and Poland left and diplomacy moved to Brussels.

E.U. foreign ministers decided to sanction key members of the Ukrainian government, whom they regard as responsible for the violence.

CATHERINE ASHTON, Foreign Policy Chief, European Union: We decided as a matter of urgency we need to look at targeted sanctions. We have agreed to suspend export licenses for equipment for internal repression. And we have asked the relevant working bodies of the council to make the necessary preparations immediately.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Russian foreign minister, visiting Baghdad, wasn’t impressed.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): The opposition cannot or doesn’t want to distance itself from extremist groups. Our Western partners and everyone in Europe and the U.S. have thrown the blame on the government of Ukraine, and they do not condemn, as they should, the actions of the extremists. We are very troubled by all that, because the double standards are obvious here.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Ukraine is pulled between Europe to the west and Russia to the east. It became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A quarter of its 45 million population are Russian speakers, living mainly in the south and east.

The majority, who speak Ukrainian as a first language, dominate the West. Pro-Europe activists in Ternopil, Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk have seized control of regional councils, and Lviv has declared independence. Western Ukrainians tend to be Catholic, while easterners are mainly orthodox.

But so far, this is a fight between the state and protesters, not between divided Ukrainians. Outside intervention, though, may fan the flames, as Ukraine becomes the victim of renewed hostility between Russia and the West.