MUNICH (AP) — Russia's foreign minister slammed Western support of Ukraine's opposition, suggesting Saturday that it is helping fuel the escalation of violence.
Ukraine has faced two months of major protests that started after President Viktor Yanukovych backed off an agreement to deepen ties with the European Union in favor of relations with Moscow.
The protests had been mostly peaceful until mid-January, when demonstrators angered by new anti-protest laws launched violent clashes with police. Three protesters died in the clashes, two of them from gunshot wounds. Police insist they didn't fire the fatal shots.
At a gathering of the world's top diplomats and defense officials in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took issue with what he said were "prominent European politicians actually encouraging such actions."
"What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?" Lavrov said. "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?"
Speaking before Lavrov, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen blamed security forces in Ukraine for using excessive force, and added that "Ukraine must have the freedom to choose its own path without external pressure."
One of Ukraine's top opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, said his country needs more than "vocal support" from the West.
Fellow opposition politician Vitali Klitschko left the conference briefly to address several hundred supporters at a demonstration about a kilometer (half-mile) away.
"We want to be a modern European country, live with a secure future," Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion, told the crowd. "Without a fight there's no victory. Therefore, we must fight."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to meet with opposition leaders in Munich on Saturday, and Ukraine's foreign minister was also attending the conference.
Klitschko told reporters it was "very important" to have the support of Kerry and others.
"I expect support for Ukraine, support for the democratic peaceful movement, because everybody wants to see Ukraine as a modern European country," he said.
During a public appearance in Munich, Kerry decried what he called a "disturbing trend" of governments in central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine, trampling on the aspirations of ordinary people.
Kerry said the crisis in Ukraine is about ordinary people fighting for the right to associate with the European Union. And he said Ukrainians have decided their futures don't have to be tied with just one country — an allusion to Russia.
"Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine," he said. "While there are unsavory elements in any chaotic situation, the vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country."
Lavrov suggested that a possible solution to tensions such as those over Ukraine was a free trade zone including the European Union and a customs union of former Soviet states, floated in the past by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"It is unlikely that any European nation would face the 'either-or' choice today if we were already on the track to a common European home," he said. "Unfortunately, what still prevails is the logic of preserving the dividing lines according to the principle of 'he who is not for us is against us.'"
Fogh Rasmussen scoffed at that suggestion later, telling reporters that Russia used "both sticks and carrots to get their immediate neighbors to join" a customs union and other trade agreements in the past.
"I think our strength is that nations are queuing up to become members of the EU and NATO not because we use sticks, but because we can offer economic opportunities and security cooperation," he said.
The Munich conference, in its 50th edition this year, is known as a venue for frank exchanges in an informal setting.
Lavrov used the occasion for renewed criticism of plans by the U.S. and NATO to install a missile defense system in Romania and Poland, even after the NATO chief said the project is "falsely described as offensive by Russia."
Lavrov said Russia considers such a system "a part of the strategic arsenal of the United States" and said Moscow's main concern is "about capabilities, and not intentions."
"When a nuclear shield is added to a nuclear sword, it is very tempting to use this offensive-defensive capability," he said.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report from Munich.