In an interview with the American magazine The National Interest, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the Obama administration had an “obvious desire to take over this geopolitical space around Russia without even caring what Moscow might think.” He added: “This was the reason for the crisis in Ukraine, when the U.S. and European Union bluntly told the Ukrainians: either you are with us, or you are with Russia against us.”
A Russian-language translation of the interview posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website quoted Lavrov as telling The National Interest that the U.S. and EU "gave the Ukrainians an ultimatum: either you are with us or you are with Russia against us."
Asked about Lavrov’s statement that the U.S. and EU gave Ukraine such an ultimatum, a U.S. State Department official, speaking on background, told VOA:
“This accusation is simply false and is just another attempt to distract from the real issue -- Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow’s continuing efforts to undermine Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was NATO’s secretary general from 2009 to 2014, also took issue with Lavrov’s claim.
“There was no ultimatum,” he told Polygraph.info via email. “We have always made it clear that Ukraine’s wish to have stronger ties with the EU and NATO is not a binary choice or a zero-sum game at the expense of a relationship with Russia."
He added: “I believe Minister Lavrov’s comments actually reflect a Russian way of thinking that Ukraine cannot have good relations with both the Kremlin and the West.”
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, had a similar reaction to Lavrov’s statement.
“That is nonsense,” he told Polygraph.info in a telephone interview. “If anybody gave Ukraine an ultimatum, it was Russia.”
In 2012-2013, Ukraine’s then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly expressed hopes his country could join both the European Union and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). He wanted to sign an association agreement with the EU and a free-trade agreement with the EAEU.
“Russia would not allow Ukraine to do the association agreement with the European Union,” said Pifer. “Russia said, no, you can’t do that. Russia said, you can only do a customs union with the Eurasian Economic Union. It was Russia that gave Ukraine the ‘either-or’ choice.”
In November 2013, Yanukovych announced he would not sign an association agreement with the EU, sparking a wave of protests that led eventually to his ouster as Ukraine’s president.
“The Russians became very uncomfortable about that and they used their military to seize Crimea,” said Pifer. “Then, later on, they used their military to support armed separatism in eastern Ukraine.”
“This is a conflict that the Russians manufactured,” he added. “The Russians say that in Crimea there was some threat to ethnic Russians – there was no threat to ethnic Russians. There was no threat in 2014 to Russian interests, but the Russians … took advantage of the Maidan revolution and manufactured an excuse to seize Crimea.”