THE United States and Europe exchanged angry words with Russia last night in a tug-of-war over Ukraine, with US, the European Union and Nato leaders saying Moscow must not strong-arm Kiev into an unpopular alliance.
Protests have gripped Ukraine since the government rejected a far-reaching accord with the EU in favour of stronger ties with Moscow in November.
At a conference in Munich where Western diplomats met the Ukrainian opposition, US 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.
But Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, outnumbered in Munich by supporters of Ukraine’s overtures to the EU 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 co-operate 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”.
On the sidelines, the boxer-turned pro-European politician Vitaly Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko lobbied for opposition support.
They led a protest in the streets of the Bavarian capital amid meetings with Kerry, and EU foreign policy chief Baroness 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.
The pro-Russian Yanukovich has signed into law an amnesty for protesters detained in the unrest and repealed the hugely unpopular anti-protest laws.
But this looks unlikely to end the sometimes violent protests that began when he accepted a Russian loan package 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.
European Council president Herman van Rompuy also said former Soviet republics were attracted to the European way of life. “The future of Ukraine belongs with the EU,” he said.