Marko Drobnjakovic/AP

Will Ukraine Become a Proxy War Between U.S. and Russia?

The main reason the U.S. cares about the violence in Ukraine? Vladimir Putin. By Matt Vasilogambros

The deadly protests that have broken out in the streets of Kiev are no longer just a Ukrainian issue. They might soon be an American one, too.

As is the case in several conflicts across the world, Ukraine is just the next proxy battle between the United States and Russia.

To understand the role the U.S. plays here, it's first important to understand both sides of the ongoing conflict. For the last three months, protesters have defiantly stood against a Ukrainian government that refuses to strengthen ties with the European Union. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have capitalized on a growing pro-West sentiment in the western part of Ukraine that has paralyzed the country and brought a violent showdown that has gained the attention of the world.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych represents the mostly Russian-speaking eastern and southern parts of the country, and has been cozy with the Kremlin on many economic and energy issues. Protests began in November after Yanukovych backed away from a trade deal with the European Union. Instead, the country got a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, historically has been pro-Kremlin.

Now, protests demanding a new election seem to be escalating toward a civil war that threatens to break the country in two. On Tuesday, clashes between riot police and demonstrators left 25 people dead and hundreds more injured.

As parts of the capital city of Kiev remain in flames as the result of Molotov cocktails, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is coordinating with the E.U. on a path forward.

"We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine," Rhodes said. "We have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions."

Sanctions likely involve freezing the assets of Ukrainian leaders, while also restricting travel. Vice President Joe Biden is also working the phones. On Tuesday, he called Yanukovych to express "grave concern" over the crisis and condemned the violence, one of several calls Biden has made recently. On Wednesday, President Obama, speaking in Mexico to reporters, said, "The United States condemns in the strongest terms the violence that's taking place."

But sanctions are not a done deal just yet. While sanctions are on the table, the threat might be dropped if the Ukrainian government backs down—releases prisoners, pulls back from protest encampments, and opens a dialogue with opposition leaders. So far, the official reaction from the Obama administration comes off as one concerned with the democratic process and the humanitarian violations. But there's a deeper motivation afoot.

Leave it to hawkish Republicans in the Senate not to mince words about the situation. A turnover of power in the country—or at the very least the weakening of Ukrainian leadership—would deal a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, some Republicans say.

Sen. John McCain, in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, didn't skirt the issue. "Watch out for Vladimir Putin because he will try to make mischief because he believes that Ukraine is part of Russia," the Arizona Republican said.

Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement went down the same path, saying in part, "Ukraine's future lies in Europe, not Vladimir Putin's Russia."

The Russians are also fully aware that what happens in Ukraine affects their standing in the region too. Putin has been on the phone with Yanukovych in the last few days. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also blatantly blamed the West for the violence. "I cannot leave without mentioning the responsibility that lies with the West encouraging the opposition to act outside of the law," he said Wednesday.

Obama and members of his administration won't mention Russia and Putin in the same breath as the Ukrainian conflict. But it's clear that Moscow is one of the biggest reasons why it's a priority for the U.S.