Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov sharpened Russian claims of western interference in its neighbour’s turbulent affairs at a joint news conference after talks with visiting German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Russia and the EU have exchanged recriminations since Kiev’s decision in November to shelve plans for a trade deal with Brussels and seek closer links with Russia instead, a move that sparked mass unrest in Ukraine claiming at least six lives.
Mr Steinmeier said “no-one should have an interest in lighting the fuse on the powder keg” and Ukraine must not become a “geopolitical chess game”. It was up to the conflicting parties in Kiev to find a solution, he said.
Mr Lavrov said: “I fully agree with Frank-Walter that there should be no spheres of influence. But dragging Ukraine to one side, telling it that it needs to choose ‘either or’, either with the EU or with Russia, the European Union is in fact trying to create such a sphere of influence.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin, who knows Mr Steinmeier well, appears to have conveyed a softer message in their meeting.
A German source said Mr Putin told the German minister that Russia welcomed steps towards economic convergence between Ukraine and the EU.
Moscow says it does not oppose strong Ukraine-EU ties but believes the European bloc was trying to pressure Ukraine into signing the deal and choosing between the EU and Russia.
In many respects, the showdown over Ukraine is about reordering power and influence in Europe following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
The EU’s enlargement process of the past decade has drawn in several former Soviet republics and former East European satellites of Moscow.
Russia has pushed back and is trying to set up a Eurasian customs union to rival the EU, preferably with Ukraine.
Mr Steinmeier said both sides were concerned that the recent relative calm in Ukraine could give way to an escalation of unrest and he wanted to find a political solution.
When Mr Lavrov warned the West against interceding in the crisis, saying Ukrainians should be left to solve their own affairs, Mr Steinmeier countered: “The EU did not force anything on Ukraine. Ukraine approached the EU.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel is due to meet Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk in Berlin on Monday.
In their meeting, the German and Russian foreign ministers discussed the possibility of mandating an international organisation to mediate between the conflicting sides in Ukraine.
Germany sees the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which counts Russia, Ukraine and the EU states as members, as best-placed for this role. Ukraine would have to ask for such mediation.
Mr Putin and top EU officials met in Brussels to “clear the air” at the end of last month. Russia stressed it wanted more a detailed study of the economic impact of former Soviet republics entering a trade association with the EU and how this might affect the competitiveness of Russian firms.
Mr Lavrov urged an end to the “politicisation of economic and business ties” and said Moscow wanted a trade area between the EU and Eurasian zones.
Mr Steinmeier stressed that if future crises like Ukraine are to be avoided, Moscow and Brussels would have to discuss longer-term aims with a mutual pledge of transparency. “We can’t avoid the fact that due to history, and the long enduring division of different systems, we have different perceptions in East and West,” he said.