Kerry: We stand with the people of Ukraine

Secretary of State meets with Ukranian opposition, as Russian minister rails against West for meddling in affairs

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Germany on Feb, 1, 2014.

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the United States and European Union support the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of stronger ties with the West, and that they should not be coerced into accepting their future lay with one country — a reference to President Viktor Yanukovich's decision to renege on a cooperation deal with the EU under pressure from Russia.

The statement came as Kerry prepared to meet Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroschenko on the sidelines of a security conference in Munich, Germany, the same day.

The people of Ukraine are "fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations," he said.

"They have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight."

During the meeting, Kerry "reiterated the United States' support for the democratic, European aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and the efforts of opposition leaders to speak out to defend democracy and choice for the people of Ukraine," according to a State Department official.

"He encouraged the opposition to remain united and peaceful and to continue discussions with the government."

The meeting and public show of support for the opposition was the latest from Western powers backing protesters, who have been camped in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence) Square since Yanukovich backtracked on a trade cooperation deal with the EU, and instead accepted a $15-billion loan package from Russia, two months ago.

However, Ukrainian opposition leaders urged U.S. and EU leaders on Friday to go beyond vocal support for their fight and demand a halt to violence they blame on Yanukovich. They have also called for the release of some 116 protesters taken into police custody during demonstrations.

"What we need is not just declarations but a very clear action plan — how to fix the problem and fix the violence, how to investigate all these killings and abductions and tortures," Yatsenyuk said.

The uncompromising standoff, which turned violent after Yanukovich passed a short-lived law barring protests in early January, prompted a rare intervention from the military on Friday.

The Defense Ministry urged the president, as commander in chief, to move swiftly and within the law to end the crisis.

"The military and the Ukrainian armed forces ... called on the supreme commander to take immediate steps, within the framework of the law, to stabilize the situation in the country and reach agreement with society," it said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Ukraine's first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk, warned that the country was on the brink of "civil war."

The military has emphasized its unwillingness to take sides throughout the unrest and seems concerned not to be drawn in. 

In covering Friday's statement, a Defense Ministry news website quoted one retired admiral, Serhiy Rybak, recalling Ukrainian troops' roles in peacekeeping after civil wars abroad: "No political ambition is worth a drop of human blood," he said.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday in a statement on Twitter that he was "very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis" and added that the "military must remain neutral,” but said he was encouraged by the eventual repeal of the anti-protest law.

Double standards

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs, helping stoke violent anti-government protests and displaying double standards.

"Why are many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law?" he said.

"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?" Lavrov said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine's future lay in Europe.

The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovich ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into its sphere of influence.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Munich on Saturday, Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called on Ukranians to distance themselves from the opposition, saying there was a "big misunderstanding between the government and the opposition."

"For the first time in our country, we can see extremist groups," he said.

He disputed claims that an opposition activist, Dmytro Bulatov, had been tortured.

Bulatov, who disappeared a week ago during widespread protests in and around the capital Kiev, resurfaced on Friday with his face badly beaten and with wounds to his hands, saying his abductors tortured and "crucified" him. Police have opened an investigation into the incident.

"Physically, this man is in good condition, and the only thing he has is a scratch on one of his cheeks," Kozhara said.

But Bulatov's lawyer, Ruslan Radetski, told Al Jazeera's Tamila Varshalomidze in Kiev, that he was in "intensive care unit after a surgery."

"He is in a tough condition in intensive care after a surgery. He was kidnapped, beaten up and tortured. The doctors haven't said yet when he will be able to leave the hospital, treatment is under way."

On Sunday, opposition leader Klitschko told Reuters that Bulatov is scheduled to leave the Ukraine for Latvia for treatment.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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Russia, Ukraine
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John Kerry

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John Kerry

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