Russia cries foul over Western embrace of Ukraine's demonstrators

Russian officials and media see Western condemnations of police behavior in Kiev as hypocritical, and are not impressed by their Western counterparts' visits to protest camps.

Andrew Kravchenko / AP
Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State, offers cookies and bread to pro-EU activists as she and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, right, walk through Independence Square in Kiev on Wednesday. (She offered some to the police too.) Moscow officials are decrying such overt displays of allegiance from Western officials as hypocritical and unacceptable.

Moscow is abuzz with rising indignation over what many Russians regard as Western leaders' overt support toward Ukraine's antigovernment protesters as well as hypocritical condemnation of Ukrainian police tactics that would raise few eyebrows in the West.

Though Moscow has done plenty of economic arm-twisting in its geopolitical tug-of-war with the European Union over Ukraine's allegiance, Russian leaders have on the whole kept unusually quiet as pro-Europe demonstrators blocked the central streets of Kiev over the past two weeks, barricading government buildings and setting up a tent city on Independence Square.

Moscow's wait-and-see approach is a big departure from the Orange Revolution of 2004, when Vladimir Putin reacted to a similar outpouring of pro-Western sentiment by personally and repeatedly voicing support for the eastward-leaning countercurrent.

In contrast, US and European officials have shuttled through Kiev to scold the democratically elected government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and often to schmooze with the protesters on Independence Square. On Wednesday, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland handed out cookies and bread to cheering protesters. (She also offered some to police.)

Ms. Nuland told reporters that she'd had a "tough but realistic" conversation with Mr. Yanukovych and believed it was possible to save Ukraine's "European future" if the Ukrainian president showed "leadership."

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki suggested the US might even impose sanctions on Ukraine, while the US government-funded think tank Freedom House called upon Yanukovych to resign and set early elections as "the only non-violent way to end the standoff with demonstrators."

And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle toured the Independence Square protest camp with two opposition leaders and declared that "Ukraine should be on board with Europe."

All this prompted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov to slam what he described as Western officials' out-of-line behavior Friday.

"Some of the comments that have been made by American officials over the last few days are shocking," Mr. Ryabkov said. "They are not even recommendations but bigoted demands that are put before the Ukrainian leadership, demands whose sharp wording reflects both a political course that we understand quite well and a certain play of emotions."

Two weeks ago, Ukrainian riot police forcibly dispersed a pro-EU street protest, using batons and stun grenades, with injuries on both sides and many arrests. That led to a strong political reaction inside Ukraine, and even Yanukovych condemned police behavior.

Since then police action has been, by all accounts, restrained. In recent days, police have moved in to relieve the siege of government buildings and remove barricades from the streets, but have refrained from using batons and tear gas or making mass arrests.

Nevertheless, Nuland told reporters on Wednesday, after police had cleared protesters from the entrances to two key official buildings, that she had made it "absolutely clear" to Yanukovych that what was "happening in security terms was absolutely impermissible in democratic states."

Secretary of State John Kerry posted an even stronger statement, saying "the United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protests in Kiev’s [Independence] Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons."

The Russian media -- which routinely turns a blind eye to the violence of Russian riot police toward peaceful protesters -- would seem to have a valid point in its current eruption of indignation at how hypocritical this all sounds.

After all, no Russian official expressed "disgust" a couple years ago when New York police used forceful tactics and made multiple arrests clearing Occupy Wall Street protesters from the streets, or when Denver police employed pepper spray and "pepper ball" bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrators, or half a dozen similar examples around the US.

Riding that wave of anger over the "double standards" of Western governments, Russia's State Duma passed a tough declaration this week insisting that "special concerns are raised by the open interference of foreign statesmen in the internal affairs of the sovereign Ukraine, which contradicts all international norms." 

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant, says the Western leaders may be deploying tough talk to compensate for their unexpected and galling failure to win at least this round in the battle for Ukraine.

"It's very difficult to find any place in the world today where American diplomacy is succeeding, and so some of the behavior that we see displayed in Kiev [by US diplomats] looks a bit idiotic. But it just underlines that they don't seem to know what to do with Ukraine. You can't substitute rhetoric for a sound strategy, but that's what it looks like they're doing," he says.

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