The East-West split reopened by the crisis in Ukraine hardened on Wednesday when US President Barack Obama threw Washington’s weight firmly behind Kiev in its standoff with Moscow.
Obama welcomed Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to the White House and appeared by his side as both leaders sternly warned Russia that Ukraine would not surrender its sovereignty.
He repeated that Moscow would face unspecified “costs” if Russian President Vladimir Putin does not back down and rejected a bid to hold what he called a “slapdash” referendum in Crimea.
“There’s another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path, but if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government,” Obama told White House reporters, sitting alongside Yatsenyuk after their talks at the Oval Office.
Yatsenyuk thanked Washington for its support.
“We fight for our freedom. We fight for our independence. We fight for our sovereignty and we will never surrender,” Yatsenyuk said.
After a series of meetings in Washington, Yatsenyuk was to head to New York yesterday for talks at the UN.
Breakaway leaders in Ukraine’s Crimea, backed by Putin, plan to hold a referendum on Sunday to split from Kiev and come under Moscow’s wing. Russian troops backed by ad hoc local militias secured the territory in the chaotic days last month after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by a street revolt.
Obama said he hoped the crisis could be resolved through diplomacy, but Ukraine and the West do not recognize the referendum and Moscow does not recognize the government in Kiev.
The US leader appeared to suggest that Crimea’s future is not set in stone, but that any change in status would be a matter for Ukrainian constitutional process after upcoming elections.
“There is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections that they can move forward on that, in fact, could lead to different arrangements over time with the Crimean region, but that is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you,” Obama said.
He also made it plain where he stood on Russian troop movements.
“We have been very clear that we consider the Russian incursion into Crimea outside of its bases to be a violation of international law,” Obama said, underlining the depth of the divide. “And we have been very firm in saying that we will stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in ensuring that territorial integrity and sovereignty is maintained.”
Yatsenyuk said he was “ready and open” for talks with Russia, but warned: “We want to be very clear that Ukraine is and will be a part of the Western world.”
During his trip to Washington, Yatsenyuk also planned to try to iron out details of a US$35 billion aid package he says his nation’s teetering economy needs to stay afloat.
He met IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, who described their talks as “productive.”
Yatsenyuk also visited the World Bank and briefed US lawmakers, trying to build a case that a defense of Ukraine is a defense of the world order.
“If Russia goes further, this will totally and entirely undermine the global security,” he said.
Ukraine has declared it will not recognize Crimea’s referendum and has heavyweight support from the US and the EU, but admits it would be powerless to intervene militarily.
Putin’s diplomatic isolation intensified when the G7 industrialized nations urged Russia “to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”
EU foreign ministers are to discuss punitive measures against senior Russian officials at a meeting on Monday.
European leaders then plan to meet at a summit on Thursday and Friday next week to witness the signing of what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said would be an historic EU-Ukraine association agreement.
Yatsenyuk confirmed in Washington that Ukraine hopes to sign the deal soon, perhaps as early as next week.