U.S. mum on Ukraine unrest to avoid antagonizing Russia

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BRUSSELS -- As Ukraine turns away from closer relations with the European Union and further into the embrace of Russia, the Obama administration is saying little about it or the resulting street protests, for fear of provoking a fracture with the Kremlin.

Huge street demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital that might have sent U.S. spokesmen to the ramparts just a few years ago have merited only mild and largely noncommittal statements -- and a decision by Secretary of State John Kerry to skip a planned visit to Kiev this week.

The unrest has brought crowds of up to 300,000 people to the streets of Kiev, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. Demonstrators are angry that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych will not sign an association agreement that would deepen trade and other ties with the EU. He is instead moving to improve relations with Russia.

The crowd in Kiev's Independence Square is the largest display of public anger since the 2004 Orange Revolution that had marked Ukraine's firm but short-lived turn away from Russian influence.

The low-key U.S. response comes as Russia has lately been a U.S. partner in diplomatic deals involving Syria's chemical weapons and Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. Kerry opened a news conference at NATO headquarters with a call for calm in Ukraine.

"Violence has no place in a modern European state," Mr. Kerry said. He urged the government and the opposition to work together "to get the Ukraine back on the road to European integration and to economic health."

Asked why his response has not been more forceful, Mr. Kerry said that Ukraine should be free to make its own choices but that the choice should be a true reflection of national will. Mr. Yanukovych, he said, has made a "personal decision" that his people do not support.

"Europe and Europe's friends all declined to engage in a rather overt and, we think inappropriate, bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made," Mr. Kerry said. He did not call out Russia by name.

A parliamentary no-confidence vote in the Yanukovych government failed Tuesday in the Ukrainian parliament, a setback for the country's opposition. The president's opponents called for the vote after Mr. Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of the EU agreement, which had been in the works for months.

Opponents are also protesting what they call police brutality in confronting demonstrators. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, addressing the parliamentary session Tuesday, apologized for the violent actions by riot police against protesters.

"Both the president and the government feel deeply sorry that it happened," Mr. Azarov said as opposition lawmakers yelled "Shame!" and "Resignation!"

The United States has no direct role in the domestic fight but has long supported a European-oriented Ukraine. The Kremlin, meanwhile, is interested in pulling the former Soviet territory more firmly into Moscow's economic orbit.

Word that Mr. Kerry would not attend a meeting in Kiev of the election-monitoring Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe coincided with news that Mr. Yanukovych was walking away from the EU agreement.

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