KIEV, Ukraine - The United States could take “concrete action” against Ukraine if its government cracks down on dissent, Senator John McCain warned Sunday as he addressed thousands of protesters camped on Kiev's bitterly cold main square.
McCain, a leading Republican voice on U.S. foreign policy, told NBC News that sanctions against Ukraine "would deserve serious consideration" by Congress if Ukraine signed a customs and trade union with Russia instead of entering a trade deal with Europe.
Demonstrators have been camping since November 21 in Independence Square, angry at President Viktor Yanukovych's last minute refusal to sign an agreement bringing Ukraine closer to the European Union.
"The [Ukraine] government knows that if they suppress these protestors they will have a real revolution on their hands," said McCain, who added that he was "guardedly optimistic they [the government] will not try to repress the people."
McCain said Ukrainian officials had told him that the foreign minister and the national security advisor intend to travel to Brussels Monday to continue negotiations with the EU, despite reports those talks had been suspended.
Earlier, McCain addressed the crowd. "Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better,” he said.
"We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. And the destiny you seek lies in Europe," McCain earlier told the crowd.
"Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better,” he said.
The protest site – now known as the "Maidan", meaning "Square", or the "Euro-maidan" - has grown in strength and turned into an all-out movement against the president and his administration.
On Saturday, buses brought rival pro-government demonstrators from around the country into the square. The crowds were kept separate by riot police.
Among the anti-government campaigners at the site this weekend was Oleg Vasilyevich, a 66-year-old pensioner from Kiev who has been coming to the square for 20 days and who has been dancing to music on the main protest stage in order to stay warm.
"I have lived in the Soviet Union all my life and I know what lies are...I know about the lies of Yanukovych," he said, adding that the only solution to the crisis would be the resignation of the government.
Tanya Myalma, a shop owner, drove to the capital with seven other from her home in western Ukraine.
She said friends in her town helped her pack food to bring to the protest.
"Our people of this generation do not know what it is like to be beaten. Now they have found out,” she said. “I hope my being here can help, even if it’s just a little bit."
The European Union said on Sunday it was putting on hold work with Ukraine on a trade and cooperation agreement, saying the arguments being made by the Kiev government had "no grounds in reality", Reuters reported.
EU enlargement chief Stefan Fuele said on Twitter that he had told Ukraine's first deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov last week that further discussion on the trade agreement was conditional on a clear commitment by Kiev to sign it, but he had not heard back from the Ukraine government.
As a result, work on the agreement was "on hold", he said.
Many political parties are represented at Euro-maidan, and the opposition is not united. But on Friday they sat down for talks with Yanukovych.
The main message from the protest stage has been one of non- violence, but a series of brutal crackdowns by authorities led Secretary of State John Kerry to express his “disgust”.
“We will win and live in modern European country, no matter how many riot troops they will send to us,” one of the opposition leaders, Vitaly Klychko, the boxer and WBC heavy weight champion, said on Friday from the main stage.
Mikhail Pogrebensky, the Director of the Kiev Center for Political Conflict studies says that “what is going on in Ukraine is the fault of both the power and the opposition” and that both sides do not want a physical fight.
Yanukovych, who met Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week, is due to visit Moscow on Tuesday – where it is possible that Russia and Ukraine will sign a deal creating a joint trade and customs zone.
In the meantime, the country is tense. It is hard to predict “what will happen in the next few hours, let alone tomorrow” according to Pogrebensky.
Reuters contributed to this report.
First published December 15 2013, 7:32 AM