Viktor Yanukovych puts Joe Biden at centre of US diplomacy

Written by Associated Press | Washington | Updated: Feb 26 2014, 18:11pm hrs
Two days before he fled Ukraine's capital, President Viktor Yanukovych huddled on the phone for more than an hour with Vice President Joe Biden, his primary conduit with the US government throughout the political crisis consuming the former Soviet republic.

The window for a resolution to the crisis was closing quickly and may already have closed, Biden warned Viktor Yanukovych, according to a senior administration official familiar with the conversation.

Viktor Yanukovych was initially defiant, the official said, and accused the protesters in the streets of Kiev of being terrorists.

Though Viktor Yanukovych became less resistant to Biden's appeals as the call continued, the vice president hung up the phone uncertain of the embattled leader's next move.

What followed was a rapid series of developments that left Viktor Yanukovych's fate and the broader political situation in Ukraine highly uncertain.

On Friday, Yanukovych agreed to form a new government and hold an early election. Ukraine's parliament slashed the president's powers and voted to free his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. And on Saturday, Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, reportedly holing up in Crimea, a pro-Russian area of Ukraine.

The tenuous political agreement was orchestrated by European diplomats, with the US and Russia playing supporting roles.

Biden, who had built a working relationship with Viktor Yanukovych since becoming vice president, was at the forefront of the delicate diplomatic manoeuvring for the Obama administration.

He spoke to Viktor Yanukovych on the phone nine times during the three-month political crisis, an unusual level of contact that underscored the heightened US concern about stability in Ukraine, a strategically located nation that shares a border with Russia.

The vice president also met throughout the crisis with Ukrainian religious leaders and Ukrainian-American groups, according to the administration official, who was not authorised to discuss the vice president's involvement by name and insisted on anonymity.