Hours after senior Western diplomats arrived here for meetings with Mr. Yanukovich in an effort to defuse both the country’s slide into a political chaos as well as a deepening financial crisis, thousands of riot police officers and internal ministry troops fanned across Kiev, putting the Ukrainian capital in a virtual lockdown in the cold predawn darkness.
Officers descending on a slope past the Hotel Ukraina smashed through a barricade that protesters had heavily reinforced.
There was fighting and shoving matches as officers pushed into the plaza from virtually all sides, taking up positions and blocking the crowd’s movements with interlocking shields.
At least one of the tents erected by demonstrators caught fire.
As the security forces spread throughout the square, a large crowd of protesters brandishing sticks, clubs, metal rods and anything else they could find massed in front of the Trade Unions Building, which leaders of the demonstration had turned into the headquarters of what they call the National Resistance.
Fistfights and shoving matches broke out on streets that the demonstrators had slicked with water that swiftly turned to ice.
The crackdown by the authorities came hours after a meeting between Mr. Yanukovich and Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief.
Western leaders, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who spoke by telephone with Mr. Yanukovich on Monday, have sternly warned the government against the use of force on peaceful protests.
It seemed likely that the enforcement effort would have serious diplomatic consequences, especially because Tuesday had largely been a day of consultations and discussions among senior officials.
The talks with Western officials had largely focused on Ukraine’s acute financial troubles; a deepening cash crunch could leave the country broke within months.
Along with Ms. Ashton, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland returned to Kiev after making a brief visit here last week.
Mr. Yanukovich also met with the three former presidents of Ukraine, to begin what the government described as a process of “round-table” discussions to resolve the crisis.
Amid the deepening financial crisis, the streets of Kiev erupted in violence early Wednesday.
After initially punching through the barricades that protesters had established around the perimeter of the square, security forces began more aggressive efforts to take them down.
At one point, they attached a rope and pulled one of the main barricades down with a winch.
Protesters in construction hats, bicycle helmets and other protective gear then rushed toward the police, with blows being landed by both sides.
The police also began deploying canisters of tear gas, creating plumes of smoke around the swirling crowds.
By 3 AM, witnesses said, the police had largely divided the crowd into sectors and had cleared a substantial portion of the plaza.
The security forces were standing in formation but did not appear to be making any arrests.
There was no apparent provocation for the aggressive police advance.
Early on Tuesday, demonstrators had milled about on Independence Square as they have since Dec. 1 — when it was first occupied after a huge demonstration that drew hundreds of thousands.
That rally was animated by public anger against a brief but bloody crackdown by the police against demonstrators the day before.
Late on Tuesday night there were a series of intermittent blackouts — unusual for Kiev — that apparently foreshadowed the impending police action.
As the violence unfolded, borrowing costs for Ukraine rose to their highest level in years and the central bank was forced to intervene to support the currency as investors fled from a country with its government under siege, no budget in place for next year and an increasingly acute need for a rescue package of as much as $18 billion.
Ukraine also remains caught in a tug of war between Europe and Russia, which are vying for political sway over the country’s future.
They are both deeply wary of putting up cash, however, given the uncertain political situation and Mr. Yanukovich’s long track record of playing East against West, most recently backing away from sweeping political and free trade agreements with Europe that had been years in the making.
In rejecting the accords, Mr. Yanukovich said he could not accept conditions of an accompanying rescue package from the International Monetary Fund.
He was also under heavy pressure from the Kremlin, which threatened draconian trade sanctions if Ukraine signed the trade pact with Europe.
If Mr. Yanukovich thought he was making a clever maneuver, stringing along the European Union while he extracted a better deal from Russia, the plan exploded when protesters headed into the streets.
“Yanukovich was playing a game where he thought he could maneuver the E.U. and Russia to his benefit,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert and a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The whole idea was to get both sides to pay.”
Instead, he now has no deal with anyone.
Russia has indicated some willingness to help, potentially with a combination of lower gas prices, the refinancing of existing debt and, perhaps, a small bridge loan, but not until the political turmoil has been resolved.
A Russian deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, said in New York on Tuesday that Mr. Yanukovich and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would meet again in a week.
The possibility that Ukraine would be tipped back into Russia’s orbit has set Western officials scrambling, in part to put together a somewhat more palatable aid package that perhaps would persuade Mr. Yanukovich to reconsider signing the accords.
Opposition leaders here said that they had received assurances in a meeting with European ambassadors that Western financial assistance was still available for Ukraine, and could serve as an alternative to a Russian bailout, though the discussions remain preliminary.
But there was no indication that the I.M.F. was softening its loan terms.
The fund has maintained that to qualify for aid, Ukraine must take some tough steps, including judicial reforms and a cut in energy subsidies for residential consumers.
There have been no new discussions between Ukrainian leaders and the fund since the collapse of the accords two weeks ago, and the conditions for assistance remain the same, said Olga I. Stankova, a fund spokeswoman in Washington.
Mr. Yanukovich, in comments posted on the presidential website, said that Ukraine would resume negotiations with the I.M.F. and that he had received assurances from Mr. Biden this week “that the issues with the International Monetary Fund are almost resolved.”
“If there are conditions that suit us, we’ll go that way,” Mr. Yanukovich said, according to his office.
Mr. Yanukovich said he told Mr. Biden that Ukraine would not accept stiff conditions.
“I said that if there are conditions that are offered to us, freeze wages, pensions, raise gas prices — we do not need such loans.”
Many financial analysts say that without such austerity measures, Ukraine’s economy will remain in a slow death-spiral and that any rescue effort will fail.
Source: The New York Times