MUNICH – The United States and European Union traded unusually sharp barbs with Russia on Saturday over Ukraine’s future amid concerns of possible military intervention to end anti-government protests.
Neither side pulled any punches, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that what happens in Ukraine is crucial for Europe’s future and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, railing at what he called wilful and two-faced Western interference.
“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” Kerry told political, diplomatic and military leaders gathered at the Munich Security Conference. “The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.”
Kerry was due later Saturday to meet with Ukrainian opposition leaders, including former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, in Munich on the sidelines of the conference.
Kerry, speaking with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel alongside, said the “vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country.”
“They are fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations — and they have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced,” he said.
Earlier Saturday, the party of opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he had warned European officials it was “very likely” Kiev would “resort to a use of force scenario, including with the involvement of the Ukrainian Army.”
The Ukrainian Defence Ministry, which previously said it would not interfere in the crisis, warned also that protestors’ seizure of government buildings was unacceptable and that “further escalation of the confrontation threatens the country’s territorial integrity.”
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy told another panel that the EU wanted good relations with Russia, that it was an essential element in Europe’s peace and prosperity, but that the Ukrainian people had to have the right to choose their own future — a future with Europe.
The West and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since President Viktor Yanukovych ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Russia trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into the fold.
Yanukovych’s decision sparked off massive anti-government protests, which turned increasingly violent last month after he rushed through a series of curbs on protests. The move prompted an escalation of the violence on the streets and the president then canceled them and accepted the resignation of the government.
Kerry’s planned meeting with the Ukrainian opposition may have explained the unequivocally harsh remarks by Lavrov, who accused the West of stoking the violence in Kiev in what he said was a clear example of double standards.
“Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?” Lavrov asked the same panel as Van Rompuy. “What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy? Why don’t we hear condemnation of those who seize and hold government buildings, attack the police, torture police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?”
EU foreign affairs head Catherine Ashton is due to visit Kiev again this week, having previously met the government and opposition figures several times in the city to call for peaceful dialogue. Other prominent EU, U.S. and international figures have also been frequent visitors to Kiev, drawing a strong response from the Ukrainian and Russian governments, although Lavrov’s remarks Saturday were unusually blunt in comparison.
Describing the situation in Ukraine as raising “fundamental questions” about EU-Russia relations, he said that in this case, “a choice is being imposed.” Europe’s future should “not be about new spheres of influence . . . it should be about how all countries” cooperate in the interest of all, he said.
For his part, Kerry said: “Russia and other countries should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a zero-sum game. The lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia and Europe work together.”