MUNICH — The US secretaries of state and defense on Saturday presented an emotional defense of the Obama administration’s engagement in international crises in the face of widespread European and Middle Eastern criticism that the United States was retreating from a leadership role.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, the most important trans-Atlantic security gathering, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed some exasperation with the criticism, rejecting “this narrative which frankly has been pushed by some people who have an interest in trying to suggest that the US is somehow on a different track.”
He went through a litany of US involvement in places like Afghanistan, Libya, and the Middle East, saying, “I can’t think of a place in the world where we’re retreating.”
But at the same time, Kerry did not mention the American “pivot to Asia” that has been the source of European concern for several years. Nor did he, in prepared remarks and a question-and-answer session, have much to say on turmoil in Ukraine, which Washington is viewed to have left in the hands of the European Union.
Kerry spoke of Ukraine’s importance, saying, “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” and he offered general support for the aspirations of Ukrainians to choose their future, saying “the United States and the EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight” against coercion.
Kerry and his top aides met separately Saturday with Ukrainian opposition figures Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, Vitali Klitschko, and Petro Poroshenko.
European officials who also met with the Ukrainians said Yatsenyuk, who had turned down an offer to become prime minister, said he might consider the job if he could be given real power. He is concerned that given the near bankruptcy of Ukraine, he would be blamed for the consequences.
The officials said European and US officials were beginning to discuss a possible financial package for Ukraine, to give any new government time to pass the difficult legislation required to qualify for a large, delayed loan from the International Monetary Fund.
“These discussions are just at the beginning,’’ one European official said. As for President Viktor Yanukovych, “he’s still playing for time,’’ the official said. The president is focused on winning another term in 2015 and fears for his personal safety if he leaves office, the official said.
Kerry repeated Washington’s admonitions to Russia not to interfere in Ukraine, which Moscow has been doing from the start of the crisis.
US and European officials, speaking privately, said they were concerned that after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, this month, President Vladimir V. Putin might feel freer to act more openly in Ukraine to restore order there — using riot police officers working alongside Ukrainians, for instance, possibly in Ukrainian uniforms.
“Russia and other countries should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a zero-sum game,” Kerry said. “The lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia, and Europe work together.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, sitting alongside Kerry, sought to reassure Europeans that the United States was not abandoning the Continent as it rebalances its interests — diplomatic, military, and economic — to Asia after more than a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his words were careful.
With the United States “moving off a 13-year war footing, it is clear to us, as well as President Obama, that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies, especially here in Europe,” Hagel said.
“Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has continuously adjusted its defense posture to new strategic realities around the world,” and that will be true as the Afghan war winds down, Hagel said.
He cited his recent visit to Poland, where land-based interceptors for a European missile-defense system will be placed in future years. In addition, four US missile-defense warships will be based in Spain for service in the Mediterranean.