Kerry Cancels Ukraine Visit to Signal Displeasure With Its Embrace of Russia

December 4, 2013 - 5:19 AM


Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Brussels on Tuesday, December 3, 2013 for a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting. With him is U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Denise Bauer. (Photo: State Department)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry has confirmed that his decision to cancel a scheduled visit to Ukraine is a signal of U.S. displeasure with its pro-Russian president’s about-face on strengthening links with the European Union.

Previously the State Department had cited “scheduling” issues for the decision to send Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland instead of Kerry to an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev beginning Wednesday.

But speaking Tuesday evening in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Kerry made it clear there was a message behind the decision to stay away from Kiev but go ahead with a visit to Moldova, which in contrast to Ukraine, did sign an E.U. association and trade agreement at a summit last Friday

“I personally will be going to Moldova in order to support that country’s European choice,” he told reporters. “And I look forward to visiting Ukraine when it, too, gets back on the path of European integration and economic responsibility.”

Linking a future visit to Ukraine with that country’s return to “the path of European integration” is the strongest public indication yet that the U.S. disapproves of President Viktor Yanukovich’s Nov. 21 decision to spurn the landmark agreement with the E.U. in favor of closer ties with Russia, a last-minute move that triggered mass protests by demonstrators demanding his resignation.

Kerry also urged the government “to listen to the voices of its people who want to live in freedom and in opportunity and prosperity.”

The apparent expression of support for the demonstrators will be noted in Moscow. In an echo of his reaction to Ukraine’s “Orange revolution” nine years ago President Vladimir Putin has already accused “outside actors” of using the protests to weaken the “legitimate” rulers of Ukraine.

Yanukovich’s policy reversal came after sustained pressure from Russia, which does not want to see more former Soviet republics in its shrinking sphere of influence move towards E.U. or NATO membership. Moscow hopes Ukraine will instead join a Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan customs union that will eventually form the basis of a Eurasian economic union.

Russia denies using trade pressure and its natural gas supplies to coerce countries like Ukraine to comply with its wishes. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s national energy company announced that Russia’s state-owned gas supplier, Gazprom, had agreed to defer payments for winter deliveries until next spring, ending the latest in a long series of Russia-Ukraine gas disputes.

Moldova, too, came under pressure from Moscow in the run-up to its signing of the agreements with the E.U., in its case in the form of a Russian ban – supposedly on health safety grounds – on the import of Moldovan wine, a severe blow to an important industry in one of Europe’s poorest countries.

The E.U. in a show of solidarity has been steadily loosening customs restrictions on Moldovan wine, and during his visit Kerry is scheduled to tour a winery there dating back to the 15th century. A senior State Department official in a background briefing en route to Brussels said the secretary of state would use the winery visit to “make some announcements about U.S. support for Moldova.”

The official said the U.S. was trying to get across to Russia that the decision of countries like Moldova and Georgia, which also signed agreements with the E.U. last Friday, to move in that direction was not “a zero-sum game.”

If Russia’s neighbors become richer and more prosperous as a result of having visa liberalization to the European Union and increased trade, they are more able to buy more things from Russia as well, and they are more stable on Russia’s periphery,” the official said.

In his press appearance in Brussels Kerry did not mention Russia’s role directly, but did say that the E.U. and its friends would not engage in an “inappropriate bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made” by Ukraine.

He also criticized Yanukovich directly, characterizing his policy shift as a “personal decision” that the people of Ukraine evidently disagree with.

As rallies by tens of thousands of pro-Western protestors demanding his resignation continued in Kiev and other cities, Yanukovich on Tuesday flew to China for a pre-planned state visit.

From Beijing he is due to visit Moscow where, according to his prime minister, Mykola Azarov, Yanukovich plans to sign key trade and economic agreements.

Also on Tuesday, the Ukraine national parliament voted down a measure of no-confidence in the government. Opposition leaders said despite the defeat they will continue to call for early elections.

In an apparent attempt to placate the protestors Azarov said he plans to send a delegation to Brussels next week to “continue negotiations” with the E.U..

Earlier, the prime minister told Western ambassadors the protest rallies bore “all the signs of a coup.”