U.S. backs Ukraine's 'European aspirations,' Kerry says

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday told Ukraine’s opposition that he backs the “European aspirations” of Ukrainians as their country confronts one of its worst political crisis in years, deeply split over whether to look East or West.

Ukraine’s crisis began in November when President Viktor Yanukovich backed away from a trade deal with the European Union to strike an agreement with its old master, Russia. Protests quickly came to encompass a wide array of discontent over corruption, heavy-handed police and other grievances.

Kerry met with Ukrainian opposition leaders, including former world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, after a security conference in Munich. During the meeting, Kerry affirmed US support for “the democratic, European aspirations” of Ukrainians and the leaders’ efforts “to speak out to defend democracy and choice,” the State Department said.

He also urged the opposition to keep up talks with the government.

The department added that Kerry told Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Leonid Kozhara, to release political prisoners, address the deteriorating human rights situation, safeguard democratic principles and form a “technical government” that can address the country’s economic problems and European aspirations of its citizens.

Earlier in the day, Kerry had told the Munich Security Conference that Ukraine should be free to align with Europe if it wants and not feel coerced by more powerful neighbors such as Russia.

Protesters 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, adding the U.S. and EU “stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.”

Kerry did not directly criticize Russia, which has accused the West of fanning the flames of unrest in Ukraine. But he said “Russia and other countries” should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a process that hurts them.

“In fact, the lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia, and Europe work together. But make no mistake: We will continue to speak out when our interests or values are undercut by any country in the region,” Kerry said.

Kerry cast his remarks about Ukraine in the broader context of a “disturbing trend” toward despotism among governments in central and eastern Europe.

Addressing the conference before Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed Western support for Ukraine’s opposition, suggesting it was leading to the escalation of violence.

“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?” Lavrov asked.