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MUNICH - The United States and Europe exchanged angry words with Russia on Saturday in a tug-of-war over Ukraine, with U.S., E.U. and NATO leaders saying Moscow must not strong-arm Kiev into an unpopular alliance.
At conference in Munich where Western diplomats met leaders of the Ukrainian opposition, 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. "The United States and E.U. stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight."But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, outnumbered in Munich by supporters of Ukraine's overtures to the European Union 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 cooperate with NATO on international peace missions such as Afghanistan.
"Here a choice is being imposed," said Lavrov, accusing some E.U. 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."
They were trading barbs at the annual Munich Security Conference. Differences between Russia and the western allies on Ukraine and Syria, where Moscow backs President Bashar Assad, made for a chilly atmosphere on the podium there.
On the sidelines, boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an ally of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, as well as lawmaker Petro Poroshenko and pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko lobbied for support for the opposition.
They led a small protest in the streets of the Bavarian capital amid meetings with Kerry, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.