By CNN Foreign Affairs Reporter Elise Labott
John Kerry felt a happy hour at a Moldovan winery would serve as a fruitful backdrop for his message, not just to his hosts but to the demonstrators on the streets of Kiev.
This week the secretary of state had planned to visit the Ukrainian capital. But President Viktor Yanukovich's decision not to sign a political and trade agreement with the European Union drew the largest protests in Ukraine since the 2004 Orange Revolution and a violent government in response.
But Kerry's decision to skip a visit to Kiev to attend a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe wasn't necessarily a response to the political upheaval or a voice of support for the protesters. Nor was it an indictment of the government's heavy-handed methods to quash its opposition.
The snub was, in effect, a U.S. protest of the government's moves to align its trade interests with Moscow by deciding not to join the EU agreement. The so-called Eastern Partnership is designed to forge closer EU ties to Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
Instead of visiting Kiev, Kerry traveled to the tiny nation of Moldova, which did sign the agreement in the face of Russian retaliation.
Alongside Kerry, Prime Minister Iurie Leanca called the decision a "historic opportunity, historic chance to be with democratic nations."
To signal its displeasure with Moldova's decision, Moscow recently banned imports of wine from Moldova, the poorest country in the region's largest and most profitable sectors.
Pointedly, Kerry spoke at a trade and investment event at the Cricova Winery in Moldova's "wine city," where wine cellars are a popular tourist attraction. And he said himself he was not just there for a tasting.
"I'm here today for a larger purpose," he told the crowd.
The success of the 15th century winery, Kerry said, is a "reminder of how both Moldova's future and past are rooted in Europe."
"It's about building bridges of opportunity and defining (the) future through your own hopes and aspirations," Kerry said.
"To the people of Ukraine, we say the same thing. You deserve the same opportunity to choose your own future."
On Tuesday at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Kerry said Ukraine should be free to choose its own path dictated by the will of the people. He warned Europe and its allies would not engage in an 'inappropriate bidding war with respect to the choice that might or might not be made."
While not mentioning Russia by name, Kerry's veiled references were a jab at Moscow's own strong-arm tactics to persuade the former Soviet republics to abandon the EU in favor of its own economic network of former territories, with Moscow as the driving force.
The West sees the decision by Ukraine, the largest of the former republics, not to partner with the EU as a bow to Russian pressure.
NATO's tough statement condemning the violence and voicing support for the Ukrainian people irritated Moscow. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the situation a "domestic issue" and said it's the prerogative of the government to decide whether to sign the agreement.
In a meeting with NATO ministers Wednesday, Lavrov asked whether NATO was planning to put itself in Ukraine. According to a senior State Department official in the meeting Lavrov was told the alliance was merely supporting the aspirations of the Ukrainian people for a European future and, "that there was no military operation planned in Ukraine, and it was provocative to discuss that."
The United States argues that Moscow's economic jawboning of the former Soviet republics is "self-defeating" and in fact Russia would benefit from increasing free trade by removing barriers and tariffs.
"We believe European integration does not have to be a zero-sum game," Kerry said.
The senior traveling official with Kerry further explained, "If Russia's neighbors become richer and more prosperous as a result of having visa liberalization to the European Union and increased trade, they are more able to buy more things from Russia as well, and they are more stable on Russia's periphery."
But by supporting nations that choose Europe over Russia, is the U.S. engaging in the same bidding war that Kerry rejects?
Given that the America has only given about $1.1 billion in assistance since 1991 when the former republic gained independence, Washington, along with its European allies, will have to up the bid to continue to win the economic battle with Moscow.
The United States seems to have gotten the memo. At the Moldovan winery, Kerry toasted a new U.S.-funded logo to help promote the country's wine industry on the international market, and invited Moldovan wine makers to the U.S. to break into the American marketplace.
"This nation's future can be defined by the strength of its connections," Kerry said.