December 17, 2013 / 3:45 PM / 5 years ago

New German minister criticises Russia, EU over Ukraine

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticised both Russia and the European Union in his inaugural speech for failing to recognise Ukraine’s divisions and placing the country in an impossible situation.

The Social Democrat (SPD) returned on Tuesday to the post he held during Angela Merkel’s first “grand coalition” government from 2005-2009.

Merkel’s conservatives came out on top in a federal election in September but were forced into another alliance with the centre-left.

“It is scandalous how Russia used Ukraine’s economic plight in order to prevent the signing of the association agreement with the European Union. Just as scandalous is the violent behaviour of the Ukrainian security forces against peaceful demonstrators,” he said, according to the text of his speech.

But he also said the EU had to ask whether it had underestimated how divided and weak Ukraine was and whether Kiev had been overburdened by being forced to choose between Europe and Russia.

He suggested Brussels may have misjudged Moscow’s determination and its emotional, historical and economic ties to Kiev.

“Those are questions we and Europeans need to answer. The only thing I’m sure of is that we presented a financial and economic package which fell far short of what was needed to keep Ukraine competitive and bind it economically to Europe.”

Steinmeier said he would travel to Poland on Thursday to discuss Ukraine with the Poles.

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich began talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Tuesday, hoping to secure new Russian loans after spurning the trade deal with Europe in favour of ties with Kiev’s former Soviet master.

Yanukovich is also seeking a reduction in the price of vital Russian gas supplies to help stave off an economic crisis, even though it could fuel new anti-government protests in the snowbound Ukrainian capital.

Just days ago Steinmeier’s Free Democrat predecessor Guido Westerwelle, walked through Kiev’s Independence Square flanked by opposition leaders, earning a stiff rebuke for his “interference” from Russia.

One of the opposition leaders in Ukraine, Vitaly Klitschko, called on Steinmeier on Tuesday to visit the square and mediate.

Russia had threatened to impose sanctions on the country of 46 million, including hindrances to Ukrainian imports should Kiev opt to strengthen its links to the EU.

Ukraine needs help to cover an external funding gap of $17 billion. Sources said a loan deal with Moscow could be worth $15 billion, with Russia providing about $3-5 billion up front.

The most Brussels has so far offered Ukraine is 610 million euros ($838 million) although EU officials are in discussion with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial institutions on ways to help.

Steinmeier and the SPD are viewed as more pragmatic towards Russia than Merkel’s conservatives or the FDP, and their coalition agreement with the chancellor contains a separate section dedicated to ties with Russia, which her 2009 deal with the FDP did not.

As the architect of Germany’s “modernisation partnership” with Moscow, and a key ally of Angela Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who cultivated a hearty, macho rapport with Putin, Steinmeier is seen launching a greater push for dialogue.

“Our relations with difficult partners like China and Russia should be characterised by composure and self-confidence,” he said. He said he had followed the partnership with Moscow soberly and without rose-coloured glasses.

“It is a concept which needs investment from both sides, and for which enough courage, creative and readiness was lacking.”

Editing by Noah Barkin

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