MUNICH – Russia’s foreign minister slammed Western support of Ukraine’s opposition, suggesting Saturday that it is helping fuel the escalation of violence.
Ukraine has faced two months of major protests that started after President Viktor Yanukovych backed off an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of relations with Moscow.
The protests had been mostly peaceful until mid-January, when demonstrators angered by new anti-protest laws launched violent clashes with police. Three protesters died in the clashes, two of them from gunshot wounds. Police insist they didn’t fire the fatal shots.
At a gathering of the world’s top diplomats and defense officials in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took issue with what he said were “prominent European politicians actually encouraging such actions.”
“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Lavrov said. “Why don’t we hear condemnations of those who seize and hold government buildings, burn, torch the police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?”
Speaking before Lavrov, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen blamed security forces in Ukraine for using excessive force, and added that “Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path without external pressure.”
One of Ukraine’s top opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said his country needs more than “vocal support” from the West.
Yatsenyuk, along with fellow opposition politicians Vitali Klitschko and Petro Poroshenko, met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The State Department said Kerry encouraged the opposition to remain united and peaceful and keep talking with the government.
Kerry also called on Ukrainian Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara for the government to take steps such as the release of prisoners and the formation of a “technical government” that can address the country’s economic problems, the department said.
Klitschko left the conference briefly to address several hundred supporters at a demonstration about a kilometer (half-mile) away.
“We want to be a modern European country, live with a secure future,” Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, told the crowd. “Without a fight there’s no victory. Therefore, we must fight.”
Appearing later at a panel discussion alongside Klitschko, Kozhara pushed back against criticism of his government.
“We think we have met all major demands from the opposition, but today is the time that the opposition shares also responsibility,” he said. He added that “when the police (are) attacked with Molotov cocktails, this is not a peaceful protest; if ministries and the ... city mayor’s office (are) occupied, that’s also not a peaceful protest.”
Kerry told the conference that the crisis in Ukraine is about ordinary people fighting for the right to associate with the European Union. And he said Ukrainians have decided their futures don’t have to be tied with just one country — an allusion to Russia.
“Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” he said. “While there are unsavory elements in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country.”
Lavrov suggested that a possible solution to tensions such as those over Ukraine was a free trade zone including the European Union and a customs union of former Soviet states, floated in the past by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It is unlikely that any European nation would face the ‘either-or’ choice today if we were already on the track to a common European home,” he said. “Unfortunately, what still prevails is the logic of preserving the dividing lines according to the principle of ‘he who is not for us is against us.’”
Fogh Rasmussen scoffed at that suggestion later, telling reporters that Russia used “both sticks and carrots to get their immediate neighbors to join” a customs union and other trade agreements in the past.
Nations “are queuing up to become members of the EU and NATO not because we use sticks, but because we can offer economic opportunities and security cooperation,” he said.
The Munich conference is known as a venue for frank exchanges in an informal setting.
Lavrov used the occasion for renewed criticism of plans by the U.S. and NATO to install a missile defense system in Romania and Poland, even after the NATO chief said the project is “falsely described as offensive by Russia.”
Lavrov said Russia considers such a system “a part of the strategic arsenal of the United States” and said Moscow’s main concern is “about capabilities, and not intentions.”
“When a nuclear shield is added to a nuclear sword, it is very tempting to use this offensive-defensive capability,” he said.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Munich.