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U.S. stays mostly mum on Ukrainian unrest to avoid antagonizing Russia

As Ukraine turns away from closer relations with the European Union and further into the embrace of Russia, the Obama administration is saying little about it or the resulting street protests, for fear of provoking a fracture with the Kremlin.

Huge street demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital that might have sent U.S. spokesmen to the ramparts just a few years ago have merited only mild and largely noncommittal statements – and a decision by Secretary of State John Kerry to skip a planned visit to Kiev this week.

The unrest has brought crowds of up to 300,000 people to the streets of Kiev, the Associated Press reported yesterday. Demonstrators are angry that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will not sign an association agreement that would deepen trade and other ties with the E.U. He is instead moving to improve relations with Russia.

The crowd in Kiev’s Independence Square was the largest display of public anger since the 2004 Orange Revolution that had marked Ukraine’s firm but short-lived turn away from Russian influence.

The low-key U.S. response comes as Russia has lately been a U.S. partner in diplomatic deals involving Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program.

Kerry opened a news conference at NATO headquarters with a call for calm in Ukraine.

“Violence has no place in a modern European state,” Kerry said. He urged the government and the opposition to work together “to get the Ukraine back on the road to European integration and to economic health.”

Asked why his response has not been more forceful, Kerry said that Ukraine should be free to make its own choices but that the choice should be a true reflection of national will. Yanukovych, he said, has made a “personal decision” that his people do not support.

“Europe and Europe’s friends all declined to engage in a rather overt and, we think inappropriate, bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made,” Kerry said. He did not call out Russia by name.

A parliamentary no-confidence vote in the Yanukovych government failed yesterday, a setback for the country’s opposition. The president’s opponents called for the vote after Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of the E.U. agreement, which had been in the works for months.

Opponents are also protesting what they call police brutality in confronting demonstrators. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, addressing the parliamentary session yesterday, apologized for the violent actions by riot police against protesters.

“Both the president and the government feel deeply sorry that it happened,” Azarov said as opposition lawmakers yelled “Shame!” and “Resignation!”

The United States has no direct role in the domestic fight but has long supported a European-oriented Ukraine. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is interested in pulling the former Soviet territory more firmly into Moscow’s economic orbit.

Word that Kerry would not attend a meeting in Kiev of the election-monitoring Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe coincided with news that Yanukovych was walking away from the E.U. agreement.

The State Department has refused to acknowledge a link. But Kerry, pointedly, will instead visit tiny Moldova, the poorest country in the region, which recently chose the E.U. trade realm over Russia’s.

Moldova has been made to pay a price for its E.U. alliance, with Russia cutting off imports of wine, one of Moldova’s largest sectors.

The trade issue need not be a zero-sum game, said a State Department official traveling with Kerry to Europe.

“All boats can rise here,” the official said. “And in fact, in the E.U.’s conversations with Russia and in the U.S. conversations with Russia, we have encouraged Russia to work in the same direction,” of reducing trade barriers and dropping tariffs.

Kerry will meet Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov while both are attending two days of NATO talks. The two diplomats have been meeting nearly weekly on Syria and Iran.

With Kerry in attendance, NATO foreign ministers briefly addressed the violence in Ukraine. “I strongly condemn the excessive use of police force we have witnessed in Kiev,” Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters. “I would expect all NATO partners, including Ukraine, to live up to fundamental democratic principles, including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.”

He added that while Ukraine’s choice of “alliance affiliations” are its own, “I would expect such decision-making processes to be truly democratic.”

The Yanukovych government has said that though it wants closer ties with Europe, it cannot afford the penalties Russia might impose. Ukraine gets a large share of vital natural gas from Russia and has already suffered from price hikes the West sees as a Kremlin warning.

Russia is on record opposing Ukraine’s previous plan to align with the E.U. and sees Ukraine as one of the prime members of a new economic network of former Soviet territories, with Moscow at the center.

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