The United States and Europe exchanged angry words with Russia on Saturday in a tug-of-war over Ukraine, with US, EU and NATO leaders saying Moscow must not strong-arm Kiev into an unpopular alliance.
At conference in Munich where Western diplomats met leaders of the Ukrainian opposition, United States Secretary of State John Kerry said the protesters believe “their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced”.
“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” he said. “The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.”
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, outnumbered in Munich by supporters of Ukraine’s overtures to the European Union that were suddenly ditched by President Viktor Yanukovich last November, hit back with the same charge.
Lavrov said “political choice was preordained for Ukraine” when NATO offered Kiev potential membership of the western military alliance in 2008. Ukraine demurred but does cooperate with NATO on international peace missions such as Afghanistan.
“Here a choice is being imposed,” said Lavrov, accusing some EU politicians of fomenting anti-Yanukovich protests by people who “seize and hold government buildings, attack the police and use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans”.
They were trading barbs at the annual Munich Security Conference. Differences between Russia and the western allies on Ukraine and Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar al-Assad, made for a chilly atmosphere on the podium there.
On the sidelines, boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as lawmaker Petro Poroshenko and pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko lobbied for support for the opposition.
They led a small protest in the streets of the Bavarian capital amid meetings with Kerry, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“We expect support for Ukraine, support for a democratically peaceful movement because everyone wants to see Ukraine as a modern European country, which is our main goal,” Klitschko told reporters.
Demonstrators were saying “enough, enough waiting, enough corruption, enough of living without rules”, he said.
Yanukovich has signed into law an amnesty for protesters detained in the unrest and repealed anti-protest legislation.
But this looked unlikely to end the sometimes violent protests that began when he accepted a $15 billion Russian loan package late last year instead of a trade deal with Europe.
Kerry and other western diplomats put the burden of responsibility for the violence on the Ukrainian government.
“We strongly condemn the violence we have seen, not least the excessive use of force by the security forces in Ukraine,” said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking of Yanukovich’s “special responsibility”.
“We insist on full respect for the fundamental principle that each and every country has an inherent right to freely choose its alliances,” added Rasmussen as Lavrov sat nearby.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy spoke of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia being attracted to the European way of life. “The future of Ukraine belongs with the European Union,” he said.