Russia and West spar at UN over minority rights in Ukraine

Ukrainian troops prepare for combat with Russian-backed separatists near the town of Dokuchayevsk, in Donetsk region, on July 13, 2019, as a war in the east of the country drags on (AFP Photo/ANATOLII STEPANOV)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - Russia on Tuesday slammed new legislation declaring Ukrainian to be the national language of Ukraine, during a meeting of the UN Security Council which western powers used as a forum to denounce Russia's annexation of Crimea.

The Russian denunciation came as a new Ukrainian law, passed in April, came into effect and which expands quotas for Ukrainian-language programming in broadcast media.

"We are not speaking out against Ukrainian," said Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, saying that every country has the right to a national language. "We want to defend Russians."

"The struggle for national identity should not violate the rights of the Russian-speaking minority," he said.

The United States, France and Britain used the session to call for an end to the "occupation" of Crimea by Russia and to curb attacks on minority rights in the peninsula.

They also demanded that "justice be served" a day before the fifth anniversary of the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over Ukraine.

The missile which destroyed flight MH17, killing all 298 passengers and crew, belonged to the 53rd Russian anti-aircraft brigade, noted US diplomat Rodney Hunter.

"Russia must end its occupation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula," said Hunter.

"Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine and our sanctions against Russia for its aggression in eastern Ukraine will remain in place until Russia fully implements the Minsk agreements."

The western nations also demanded the release of 24 Ukrainian sailors detained in December by Russian forces during a naval incident off the coast of Crimea, as well as the return of the vessel seized by Moscow.

During the meeting, officials from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) called for "constructive dialogue" to resolve differences in the conflict and respect of minority rights.

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula after a 2014 uprising in Ukraine that brought pro-western politicians to power.

Fighting then broke out between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, leaving some 13,000 people dead.

Kiev and western countries accuse Russia and providing military support to the separatists, a charge that Moscow denies.

The Minsk accords, signed in 2015 under the supervision of Germany and France, reduced the fighting considerably but there are still occasional flare-ups.