Kiev, By Katherine Haddon (AFP)
US Vice President Joe Biden will meet Ukraine’s leaders Friday as the ex-Soviet country marks a year since the start of protests that toppled a pro-Russia regime and sparked the conflict ravaging the nation’s east.
The Ukrainian government hopes Biden will make an announcement on further US assistance to help Kiev forces locked in a drawn-out struggle for territory against pro-Kremlin separatists.
The US has so far limited its support to non-lethal security assistance but Kiev wants it to go further.
Russia, which denies providing military support to the separatists, has warned that if the US were to arm Ukrainian forces, the conflict in eastern Ukraine “will grow”.
In Kiev, dozens of people started gathering at the Maidan, the city’s main square, laying flowers at shrines to the more than 100 people who died in protests that started on November 21 last year. Some mourners wept or crossed themselves as they remembered the dead.
Olga Kalinik, a 20-year-old student who took part in the months of demonstrations from day one, predicted more protests to come as Ukraine struggles for unity.
“I think it’s not the end because it was Maidan, the revolution, and now it’s war,” she said.
“People will again and again travel to the Maidan and I think we must together talk about what happened here because we must understand why and see our mistakes.”
The protests erupted after then president Viktor Yanukovych suddenly scrapped a deal for closer ties with Europe and eventually led to his ouster in February, which prompted Moscow to seize Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and eventually triggered separatist unrest in Ukraine’s industrial east that has killed more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
President Petro Poroshenko has declared Friday a Day of Dignity and Freedom and a series of memorial ceremonies are planned.
Biden, along with Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is due to lay a wreath at the memorials to the dead. He will later hold meetings with the two leaders before they issue a joint statement.
– ‘Strong support’ from US –
During his visit, the US vice-president is expected to try and shore up a tattered ceasefire in the east, which has been in place since September 5 but which has failed to prevent almost 1,000 people from dying in the fighting since, according to the United Nations.
One more Ukrainian soldier and two civilians were killed in the east in the last 24 hours, Ukrainian security officials said Friday.
Yatsenyuk said Thursday he hoped for an announcement on further US assistance to Ukraine during Biden’s visit following a $53 million (42 million euro) package announced in September which included $46 million of security assistance.
That included non-lethal military equipment such as night vision goggles, body armour and radios. But Kiev wants Washington to go further and provide lethal assistance.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters Thursday that the US was “still focused on non-lethal assistance right now”.
Russia has warned against the US arming Ukrainian forces, with the secretary of Russia’s national security council, Nikolai Patrushev, saying the conflict in eastern Ukraine “will grow” if this happened.
The Kremlin denies Western and Ukrainian accusations that it is backing the rebels with troops and military equipment but diplomatic relations have plunged to a low not seen since the Cold War over the seven-month conflict.
In an interview with Kiev’s The Day newspaper published Thursday, Biden stressed there was “no military solution to this crisis” and accused Russia of “interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state”.
He added: “I will be bringing a strong message of support to the Ukrainian people and government”.