Kerry-Lavrov Verbal Jousting on Ukraine’s Future

United States Secretary of State John Kerry strongly defended Ukraine’s right to align with Europe on February 1, as the chief American diplomat and his Russian counterpart engaged in a public war of words over whether Kiev’s future lies with Moscow or the West.

The verbal jousting match between Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, comes as thousands of protesters continue to occupy buildings in Ukraine’s capital, demanding that their country’s pro-Russian president keep Kiev out of Moscow’s orbit.

The protesters have been camped out in the Ukrainian capital since late November, when Ukraine’s council of ministers issued a decree ordering the government to halt preparations for signing a long-planned political and free trade accord with the European Union.

The Association Agreement, which had been scheduled to be signed at the November 28-29 Eastern Partnership summit between the European Union and five former Soviet Republics, would have incorporated Ukraine into the E.U.’s common market and put Kiev on a path to joining the 28-nation bloc.

In the lead up to the Ukrainian government’s decision to reverse course and not sign the pact, which had been years in the making, Kiev came under substantial pressure from Moscow, which wants Ukraine to join a rival Russian-led customs union instead.

For a week in mid-August,  virtually no exports from Ukraine were allowed to enter Russia, as Russian customs officials began subjecting Ukrainian imports to unusually long and time-consuming inspections, blocking them from crossing the border into Russia.  An adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin commented at the time that the stepped up inspections were a test of the customs procedures that Moscow would apply to Ukrainian imports if Kiev took the “suicidal step” of signing the accord with the E.U.

Russia’s virtual trade embargo on goods entering the country from Ukraine was a preceded by a measure in late July that banned imports of products manufactured by Rosen, a Ukrainian confectionary company owned by Petro Poroshenko, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman and former government minister who has strongly supported Kiev’s efforts to integrate into the 28-nation bloc.

The Ukrainian governments decision to abandon the Association Agreement with the E.U. in late November was followed by a December 17 announcement that Russia had agreed to purchase $15 billion of Ukraine’s sovereign bonds and would lower the price that Kiev pays for Russian gas from around $400 per thousand cubic meters to $268.50.

The announcement that Russia would extend financial lifelines to Ukraine’s moribund economy followed a meeting the same day between Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president, and Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart.

On February 1, Kerry launched a thinly-veiled verbal broadside at Russia, criticizing Moscow for its coercive efforts to prevent Ukraine from drawing closer to the EU. “Their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced,” the chief U.S. diplomat said in a speech at an annual foreign policy conference in the German city of Munich.

Lavrov, Kerry’s Russian counterpart, delivered a speech in which he criticized Europe and Washington’s failure to condemn Ukraine’s opposition, which has occupied numerous government buildings in Kiev and in regional capitals across the country.  “What does incitement of violent street protests have to do with the promotion of democracy? Why do we not hear condemnation of those who seize government buildings and attack police and use racist, anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?”

Eric Erdahl

Sources: BBC, Alert Issue European Union Institute for Security Studies, The New York Times World News, The New York Times
Photo: The Blade