MUNICH — Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday that Ukraine, confronting a political crisis and massive anti-government protests, should be free to align with Europe if it wants and not feel coerced by more powerful neighbors such as Russia.
"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine," Kerry said at a security conference in Munich. "While there are unsavory elements in the streets in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country."
In a meeting later with opposition leaders, Kerry affirmed U.S. support for "the democratic, European aspirations" of Ukrainians and the leaders' efforts "to speak out to defend democracy and choice," according to the State Department. He urged the opposition to keep up talks with the government.
The department said Kerry also told Ukraine's foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, to release political prisoners, address the deteriorating human rights situation, safeguard democratic principles and form a "technical government" that can address the country's economic problems and European aspirations of its citizens.
The crisis in Ukraine began after President Victor Yanukovych backed out of an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of getting closer to Russia. Protests quickly came to encompass a wide array of discontent over corruption, heavy-handed police and other grievances.
In his speech, Kerry said protesters are "fighting for the right to associate with partners who will help them realize their aspirations — and they have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone — and certainly not coerced."
He said the U.S. and EU "stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight."
In the audience were U.S., European and other diplomats, lawmakers, military officers, think tank and academic specialists and former government officials such as Henry Kissinger.
Kerry did not directly criticize Russia, which has accused the West of fanning the flames of unrest in Ukraine. But he said "Russia and other countries" should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a process that hurts them.
"In fact, the lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia, and Europe work together. But make no mistake: We will continue to speak out when our interests or values are undercut by any country in the region," Kerry said.
Kerry cast his remarks about Ukraine in the broader context of a "disturbing trend" toward despotism among governments in central and eastern Europe.
"The aspirations of citizens are once again being trampled beneath corrupt, oligarchic interests — interests that use money to stifle political opposition and dissent, to buy politicians and media outlets, and to weaken judicial independence and the rights of non-governmental organizations," he said.
Addressing the conference before Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed Western support for Ukraine's opposition, suggesting it was leading to the escalation of violence.
"Why don't we hear condemnations of those who seize and hold government buildings, burn, torch the police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?" Lavrov asked.
Kerry made his remarks alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who did not directly mention Ukraine.
Hagel did echo Kerry's call for a "trans-Atlantic renaissance," or redoubling of efforts to improve all manner of cooperation between the United States and its European allies in NATO.
A subtle but significant element of Hagel's speech was his assertion that he and Kerry are intent on giving relatively more weight to diplomacy in U.S. foreign affairs and less to the military.
This is a reference to what some have called Washington's militarization of foreign policy in the years following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the two American wars that followed.
Hagel said this means advancing a "renewed and enhanced era of partnership" with allies, including those in Europe who were troubled by what they saw as unwise and even arrogant U.S. use of force in Iraq. It also means working mostly behind the scenes in troubled areas of the globe, including in Africa, to help unstable countries defend their lands without direct U.S. military intervention.
"The United States will engage European allies to collaborate more closely, especially in helping build the capabilities of other global partners," Hagel said.
Europeans also have come to question the depth of America's defense commitment in light of the Obama administration's promised but limited shift toward the Pacific.
Hagel offered assurances that the administration is determined to strengthen its ties to Europe and not retreat from the continent.
To underscore that commitment, Hagel spent parts of two days in Poland prior to arriving in Munich on Friday.