Editor’s Note: Watch a live stream of the protests in Kiev, Ukraine.
WASHINGTON – At least 70 people have died Thursday in the most violent day of protests yet in Kiev, Ukraine’s embattled capital.
Photos from Ukraine’s capital city show blackened, scarred streets with tires burning and protesters wearing gas masks.
U.S. and European leaders are ramping up the pressure on Ukraine’s government to halt the violence. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the protests to stop.
So what spurred the violent clashes between protesters and the government? And why does this matter to Ukrainians and more importantly to the U.S.?
Ukrainians are protesting closer economic and financial ties with Moscow after Putin offered the former Soviet country a $15 billion bailout to rescue the struggling country.
But since Ukraine became an independent country more than two decades ago, the country has moved toward a more western-style economy and government. Ordinary Ukrainians see closer ties with Russia as turning back the clock on that progress and they are willing to take to the streets to voice their opposition to Russia, says Fred Starr, chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Putin’s vision is to create a Moscow-based version of the European Union for former Soviet countries, Starr says.
Gas prices and Russia’s ability to hurt or help the Ukrainian economy, call it the power of the purse, is another factor influencing Ukraine’s relationship with Moscow.
Ukraine depends on Russian gas, which allows its neighbor to the east to control prices. Russia can squeeze the country by increasing prices or reduce prices as a powerful bargaining tool, Starr says.
Putin’s bailout offer included a “sharp cut in the price Ukrainians pay for natural gas,” according to The Associated Press.
The protests began because of fights over whether the country should be part of the European Union or have trade ties with the former Soviet bloc. Now the situation has devolved into a political fight.
“At this point it’s a failed government which has turned to Moscow for help and it hasn’t received what it would need and the public is now increasingly alienated,” Starr says.
Starr doesn’t believe the violent street clashes will end unless President Viktor Yanukovych agrees to step down and hold new elections.
According to The Associated Press, protesters are also demanding constitutional reforms that would limit presidential power.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko are the two primary opposition leaders who have been negotiating with Yanukovych’s government and foreign officials from Europe, especially Germany.
Klitschko is known in Germany as a heavyweight boxer. He left his boxing career behind to focus on Ukrainian politics late last year.
According to The Associated Press, he is a lawmaker and chair of the opposition party and has said he will run for president in 2015.
Yatsenyuk is a former foreign minister who led efforts to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union, according to The Associated Press.
President Yanukovych offered Yatsenyuk the post of prime minister in January but the move failed to assuage opposition groups.
Protesters have also taken to the streets in other Ukrainian cities.
But the problem isn’t unique to Ukraine. Putin is trying to draw in other former Soviet countries including Georgia and Azerbaijan, at the expense of the countries’ own independence – moves that could destabilize Central Asia and which the United States can’t ignore, Starr says.
According to Associated Press reporters, protest leaders and President Yanukovych have called for a truce but Thursday brought a fresh wave of violence with reports of snipers firing at the protest camp.
The EU decided Thursday to impose sanctions, which could include travel bans and asset freezes that would hurt the oligarchs who back the president.
Foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland were to be in Kiev Thursday to meet with the government and protesters.
Yanukovych has asked that Thursday be a day to mourn the dead.
Meanwhile, a Ukrainian skier says she has withdrawn from the Olympics as a sign of protest.