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Friend, foe, other?

Christoph Hasselbach, Brussels / cmkDecember 5, 2013

If not for disagreements over the situation in Ukraine, NATO and Moscow could be getting along quite well at the moment. At a meeting in Brussels, Russia has called on other nations "not to interfere" in Kyiv.

Sergei Lavrov
Lavrov said the Ukrainian government had the right to act against aggressive demonstratorsImage: Reuters

There was high praise for Russia on Wednesday (04.12.2013), as the foreign ministers of NATO members and Russia met in Brussels.

Germany's outgoing Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave particular accolades to Russia for the recent negotiations on Iran's nuclear program saying, "Here, Russia played a very important role."

Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen mentioned the recent progress on the plan to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. "The NATO-Russia Council remains the right forum to address pressing international issues, such as Syria and the challenge posed by its stocks of chemical weapons," he said.

Rasmussen also spoke of the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy, all issues in which he said Russia was constructively working together with NATO.

Westerwelle even went so far as to say that for Germany, "it's clear that the pressing security challenges in Europe and beyond can only be overcome in dialogue with Russia, and certainly not against Russia." This came from the same government that only a few days ago accused Russia of pressuring Ukraine into not signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of the deal just days before the planned signing of the pact. At the time, leaders in the EU were outraged at the Russian veto of the rapprochement of one of its former satellite states with Europe. But at Wednesday's meeting, NATO was striking quite a different tone.

Lavrov: Ukraine an internal matter

Ukraine protests in Kyiv
Protesters in Kyiv are looking for a closer relationship with the EUImage: Reuters

Officially, Ukraine is not actually a current topic for NATO. Under previous presidents, the eastern European nation aspired to become a member of NATO, but Yanukovych has not made this a priority. However, Ukraine has taken part in a number of individual NATO missions, such as in Afghanistan.

Despite the tenuous link between the two, NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday (03.12.2013) condemned the violence against the demonstrators in Kyiv. Russia was not mentioned. But on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took the criticism as an opportunity to sharply criticize his Western counterparts.

Lavrov said he didn't understand why NATO commented on the issue, saying it conveyed a "completely distorted image" of the situation in Ukraine. Lavrov himself criticized the violent tactics of the opposition, calling it "excessive." He said the government had the right to act against aggressive demonstrators.

Lavrov said Russia was calling on other nations "not to interfere in the situation," saying it was an internal matter. He added that Ukraine had a "sovereign right to ratify or not ratify" the EU association deal, which it had done.

Crisis? What crisis?

Russia, for its part, has often accused the European Union of putting pressure on Ukraine to draw this important nation to its side. So does Ukraine feel itself under pressure from Moscow or Brussels?

Igor Dolgov, head of Ukraine's NATO mission, said Ukraine didn't feel pressure from either side. "Ukraine is a self-sufficient country and we are used to coping with all internal problems ourselves. And as a sovereign state, we do not foresee an intervention from the outside," he said.

Dolgov said he also sees no problem with the demonstrations. "Crisis? I don't see a crisis," he said, adding that the protesters share one of Yanukovych's goals, namely a closer relationship with the EU. He pointed out, however, that Ukraine was looking for more financial support from the EU, an attitude that has seen the Ukrainian government accused of bargaining.

Westerwelle at the NATO meeting
Westerwelle said Ukraine is a part of EuropeImage: Reuters

Hoping for a change of heart

Westerwelle, in any case, doesn't think that all is lost, saying Ukraine was having a major internal discussion.

"This is of concern to Europe, because it's also about Europe," he said. Immediately after the meeting, Westerwelle flew to Kyiv for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); Ukraine currently holds the chair. There, he met with Ukrainian opposition leaders and spoke with protesters in Independence Square.

At the OSCE meeting on Thursday, Westerwelle hopes to hold bilateral talks with Ukrainian representatives. He, and others, still hope that Yanukovych will change his mind.

"I would welcome it if Ukraine would reconsider its position and sign this agreement with the EU," said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. "It would benefit the EU, it would certainly benefit Ukraine and in my view, it would also benefit Russia because it would create greater potential for trade, and trade is what we need in Europe."