Tug of war over Ukraine

Munich security conference, 1 February Image copyright AFP

When King Ludwig I of Bavaria opened his magnificent hotel in Munich in 1841 he said he wanted "a comfortable place for the guests to stay".

He could not have imagined the sumptuous setting of his Bayerischer Hof would one day provide an elegant stage for a war of words over Ukraine.

In public sessions and in private meetings, the diplomatic and political battle for Ukraine is one of the key issues taking centre stage as the Munich Security Conference marks its 50th year.

Image copyright AP
Image caption John Kerry spoke of a 'fight for democracy' in Ukraine

One of the premier gatherings on the calendar of the world's security chiefs and top diplomats has brought protagonists from all sides to the heart of Munich as the tug of war over Kiev's allegiances are fought with such shocking brutality on the streets of Kiev that they have been likened to medieval battles.

US Secretary of State John Kerry called it a "fight for democracy. "

"While there are unsavoury elements on the streets in any chaotic situation, the vast vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe, prosperous country," he explained to the packed main conference hall.

Offer on the table

Less than an hour before, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov used the same podium to throw a question to the floor: "What does incitement of violent street protests have to do with the promotion of democracy?"

And in case there was any doubt about the West's commitment to Ukraine, the morning began with the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy announcing: "The future of Ukraine belongs with the European Union."

"The offer is still on the table," he said.

Last year an EU association accord was ditched by President Victor Yanukovych, following financial support and pressure from Moscow which is keen to keep its former Cold War ally in its fold.

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Media captionSergei Lavrov accused the West of hypocrisy

Ukrainian opposition leaders have come to Munich to say to their Western supporters that words, however welcome, are not enough.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk told me they were asking for a "Marshall Plan not Martial Law" - which he feared could be imposed by the government.

He spoke of an economy "in meltdown" and a political system with a constitution which gave the president powers that resembled "a dictator's powers not a "freely elected President".

There was, he warned, "a very high risk of increasing tension".

'Coup threat'

This week Ukraine's defence ministry, in a rare statement, called on the president to stabilise the situation and warned of the possibility of the country's break-up.

Mr Yatsenyuk called it a threatened coup, and warned that "those responsible for it can easily get a one-way ticket to The Hague". In other words, it would be tantamount to war crime.

A condemnation and a caution has also come from Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

He told me that he "strongly regretted the use of excessive force by Ukrainian security forces". He also underlined that the terms of a Nato-Ukrainian Commission required "the military to stay neutral".

Neutrality is missing in Munich as rival sides ratchet up the rhetoric.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara is also here with a very different narrative of his country's dramatic descent into violence.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk dismissed him as a "speech master." But, in the spirit of security conference, the foreign minister was also due to have his say.

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