PARIS (Reuters) - NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen criticized Russia on Wednesday for pressuring Kiev not to sign a free trade pact with the European Union, a move that triggered mass protests.
Ukraine, caught in a tug-of-war for influence between Moscow and Brussels, has been rocked by protests since it walked away from the EU association deal two months ago. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and deputies rolled back anti-protest laws to try to defuse the crisis.
"An association pact with Ukraine would have been a major boost to Euro-Atlantic security, I truly regret that it could not be done," Rasmussen told le Figaro daily. "The reason is well-known: pressure that Russia exerts on Kiev."
Rasmussen also condemned police violence against the protesters and pressed Ukraine's leaders to assert their independence, urging closer ties with his North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union.
Noting that cooperation between NATO and Russia had improved in some areas, he criticized Russia's role in eastern Europe.
"We have real differences and real issues," he said. "It's obvious that Russia's attitude is clearly hostile to the (NATO) alliance opening to the east."
(Reporting By Nicholas Vinocur, editing by Elizabeth Piper)