Clinton treads lightly on Russia's doorstep
Clinton also said American companies have a "great opportunity" for fruitful investments in Ukraine, particularly its energy sector, although she also suggested that the country needs to get a tighter grip on business corruption.
At a joint news conference with President Viktor Yanukovych, Clinton said the Obama administration supports efforts by Ukraine to deepen its relationship with Russia, so long as it also remains open to closer ties to the United States and Europe. She also glided over a reporter's question on the impact of the Russian spy ring arrests in the U.S., deferring to President Barack Obama's statement that the U.S.-Russian relationship would be unaffected by the case.
Addressing Yanukovych directly, she said, "Your nation's commitment to democracy is inspiring the United States and the world, and we will draw upon that inspiration as we work to build a partnership between our nations."
Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 in the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yanukovych's more pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had broken ties with Russia to seek membership in the European Union and NATO, in both cases without success. At his news conference with Clinton, the Ukrainian president said he views the U.S. as a reliable strategic partner and is prepared to take new steps to build a stronger partnership.
Clinton made no explicit criticisms of Ukraine's human rights record, instead telling Yanukovych the United States is "deeply impressed" by the democratic gains in Ukraine. She made it clear her intent was to encourage, not lecture.
Later, at an evening town hall-style meeting with a few hundred civic activists and students, Clinton spoke more directly of the challenges facing Yanukovych, whose election in February marked a change of direction for Ukrainian foreign policy.
Clinton noted that Yanukovych has publicly stated his determination to eradicate corruption and to preserve freedom of the press. She praised those comments but added that he must turn his stated commitment into concrete action.
"Rhetoric alone does not change behavior," Clinton said.
A small group of women's rights advocates paraded with posters a few streets from the hotel where Clinton was staying. "Teach our president," one poster read. Others protested a lack of women in senior positions in Yanukovych's government.
Clinton also met privately at her Kiev hotel with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the February presidential election to Yanukovych and remains his political enemy.
Some critics of the Obama administration's approach to Russia and ex-Soviet states like Ukraine say Washington is bending too far backward to please the Russians, at the expense of pressing for democratic development elsewhere in the region.
David J. Kramer, a Russia specialist at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank, wrote in an analysis of Clinton's agenda in Ukraine that she should make clear that Ukraine's democratic development is critical to Europe as a whole.
"This is a country heading in the wrong direction, as evidenced by the disturbing and rapid rollback of its democratic gains," Kramer wrote.
Clinton noted that the country's bid to join NATO was abandoned when Yanukovych came to power, adding that the membership door remains open. And she made an oblique allusion to Russia's strong opposition to having Ukraine join NATO. "No other country," she said, should have the right to tell Ukraine what alliances it can join.
Clinton was headed on Saturday to Krakow, Poland.
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