President Obama met with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk at the White House where he reinforced his support for the new government and condemned the Crimean referendum scheduled on March 16 to break away from Ukraine.
Obama and the West have repeatedly said the referendum is illegal and will push more sanctions on Russia if President Vladimir Putin uses the votes to justify more aggression against Ukraine. He told the press he hopes for the success of the latest efforts to convince Crimea to cancel its referendum and to push back Russia.
“There’s another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path,” Obama said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government.”
Yatseniuk was appointed prime minister after the Ukrainian parliament ousted Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22. Russia still refuses to recognize the new government, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said his country will not hold talks with Ukraine until a legitimate leader emerges. Ukraine said it wants to hold talks with Russia.
Obama encouraged this direction but cautioned that the Russian military presence undermines efforts for diplomacy:
“The current government in Kiev has recognized and has communicated directly to the Russian federation their desire to manage through this process diplomatically,” Obama said. “But what the prime minister, I think, is rightly insistent on is they cannot have a country outside the Ukraine dictate to them how they should arrange their affairs.
“There is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections they can move forward on that could, in fact, 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.”
After Yanukovych was deposed, Crimea, an autonomous republic of Ukraine, took steps to break away from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation. Pro-Russians and Russian forces have clamped down on Crimea and control the peninsula. Putin said he has a right to protect the peninsula’s over-58% ethnic Russians and Russian interests, but Yatseniuk said Ukraine will not give up any land to Russia: “We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty, and we will never surrender,” the Ukrainian leader said.
Yatseniuk met with Secretary of State John Kerry, who announced he will meet with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to persuade him to stop the referendum and end the political crisis through diplomatic talks:
“In my discussions with Minister Lavrov, I have made it clear that there are many reasons for Russia to choose a path of de-escalation and of political solution here,” Kerry told a House committee on Wednesday, where he announced his plans to meet with Lavrov. “We believe that interests can be met and that most importantly, the desires of the people of Ukraine can be respected, and that the international law can be respected.”
The State Department also reaffirmed its alliance with Yatseniuk and Ukraine. They discussed the many ways the US will help the Ukrainians, including immediate assistance to organize a Humanitarian Assistance Planning Conference with the Department of Defense, support for recovery efforts, new technical support, and overall support for the May 25 presidential elections.