MOSCOW Russia accused the European Union on Friday of seeking to create a "sphere of influence" on its borders by pressing Ukraine to choose closer ties with the Western bloc at the expense of relations with Moscow.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sharpened Russian allegations of Western interference in its neighbor's turbulent affairs at a joint news conference after talks with his visiting German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Russia and the EU have exchanged recriminations since Kiev's decision in November to shelve plans for a trade agreement with Brussels and to seek closer links with Russia instead, a move that sparked mass unrest in Ukraine claiming at least six lives.
Steinmeier told journalists that "no one should have an interest in lighting the fuse on the powder keg" and Ukraine must not become a "geopolitical chess game". It was up to the conflicting parties in Kiev to find a solution, he said.
"I fully agree with Frank-Walter that there should be no spheres of influence. But dragging Ukraine to one side, telling it that it needs to choose 'either or', either with the EU or with Russia, (the European Union) is in fact trying to create such a sphere of influence," the Russian minister said.
"That is obvious and no nice words can change that."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who knows Steinmeier well from his previous stint as German foreign minister, appeared to have conveyed a softer message in their meeting. A German source said Putin told Steinmeier that Russia welcomed steps towards economic convergence between Ukraine and the European Union.
REORDERING POST-COMMUNIST EUROPE
Moscow says it does not oppose strong Ukraine-EU ties but believes the EU was trying to pressure Ukraine into signing the deal and choosing between the EU and Russia
In many respects, the showdown over Ukraine is about reordering power and influence in Europe following the 1991 collapse of the Communist Soviet Union. The EU's enlargement process of the past decade has drawn in several former Soviet republics and former East European satellites of Moscow.
Russia has pushed back and is trying to set up a Eurasian customs union to rival the EU, preferably with Ukraine, which has 46 million people with shared historical and cultural roots.
Steinmeier said both sides were concerned that the recent relative calm in the Ukrainian protests could give way to an escalation of unrest and wanted to find a political solution.
When Lavrov warned the West against interceding in the crisis, saying Ukrainians should be left to solve their own affairs, Steinmeier countered: "The EU did not force anything on Ukraine. Ukraine approached the EU."
Germany and others should try to stay in touch with all sides, he added. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko and Arseny Yatsenyuk in Berlin on Monday, her spokesman said.
In their meeting, the German and Russian ministers discussed the possibility of mandating an international organization to mediate between the conflicting sides in Ukraine.
Germany sees the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which counts Russia, Ukraine and the EU countries as members, as best-placed for this role. Ukraine would have to ask for such mediation.
Putin and top EU officials met in Brussels to "clear the air" at the end of January. Russia stressed it wanted more a detailed study of the economic impact of ex-Soviet republics entering a trade association with the EU and how this might affect the competitiveness of Russian firms.
Lavrov on Friday urged an end to the "politicization of economic and business ties" and said Moscow wanted to see a trade area between the EU and Eurasian zones.
Steinmeier stressed that if future crises like Ukraine are to be avoided, Moscow and Brussels would have to discuss longer-term aims with a mutual pledge of transparency.
"We can't avoid the fact that due to history, and the long enduring division of different systems, we have different perceptions in East and West. But if we are aware of this, then we can create trust," Steinmeier said.
"It is clear there was competition over Ukraine and recent history teaches us that was not helpful. Nor was it helpful for relations between the European Union and Russia."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman and Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Tom Heneghan)