President Obama welcomed the new interim Ukrainian prime minister to the White House Wednesday in a show of support for that country’s fledgling pro-Western government.
“The interests of the United States are solely in making sure that the people of Ukraine are able to determine their own destiny,” Obama asked Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to relay to his people during a press conference with reporters in the Oval Office. “You can rest assured that you will have our strong support as you move forward during these difficult times.”
Obama is racing to diffuse tensions between Ukraine and Russia days ahead of a vote by the residents of Crimea, a strip of land connected to Ukraine that, while autonomous, abides by Ukrainian law. On Sunday, residents will vote on whether to declare independence, which if approved, will be followed by a vote on whether to move to become part of the Russian Federation.
The U.S. and other western nations reject the legitimacy of that referendum, saying it is against Ukrainian law. Obama called it “slapdash” and “patched together,” saying “we will not recognize, certainly, any referendum that goes forward.”
Russian troops entered Crimea on Feb. 27 in an act that shocked the world in its brazenness. While the peninsula hosts a Russian naval base, the invasion Russian troops infringed upon the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, leaders of the Group of Seven nations have said.
Sitting next to Obama, Yatsenyuk urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to “tear down this wall, the wall of war, intimidation, and military aggression.”
“Let’s stop. Let’s calm down,” Yatsenyuk said.
Coming just days after the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, the Russian invasion capitalized on months of protests within Ukraine’s borders. Pro-Kremlin former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February after public sentiment against his rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia last November reached a boiling point.
“We have been very clear that we consider the Russian incursion into Crimea outside of its bases to be a violation of international law, of international agreements of which Russia is a signatory,” Obama said. The episode is testing an already-fragile relationship between the U.S. and Russia, the leaders of which have collided in the past month over gay rights, spying and the harboring of fugitive former government contractor Edward Snowden, among other issues.
“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,” Obama said Wednesday, pointing to Kiev’s desire to reach a diplomatic solution. Moscow is refusing to recognize the Ukrainian government as legitimate.
“What the prime minister has, I think rightly, insisted on is that they cannot have a country outside of Ukraine dictate to them how they should arrange their affairs,” Obama said, noting there is a constitutional process in place that could lead to a change in Crimea’s status. “But that is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you,” Obama said.
The U.S. has pledged $1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine, and the European Union has pledged $15 billion. But the amount falls short of the $35 billion requested over the next two years. Political turmoil has only exacerbated Ukraine’s financial woes; the country is teetering on bankruptcy.
The U.S. and E.U. are also moving to impose economic sanctions on Russia and visa bans on citizens who are determined to have threatened the sovereignty of Ukraine, should Russia fail to pull back its troops. That legislation has passed the House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; it now moves to the full Senate for a vote.
“There’s another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path,” Obama said. “But if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand strongly behind the Ukrainian government in preserving its unity and its territorial integrity.”
The Group of Seven released a statement Tuesday saying it would refuse to recognize the results of Sunday’s referendum.
“We call on the Russian Federation to immediately halt actions supporting a referendum on the territory of Crimea regarding its status, in direct violation of the constitution in Ukraine. Any such referendum would have no legal effect,” the statement said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met separately with Yatsenyuk Wednesday, plans to meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Friday in London in an attempt to broker a last-minute resolution.
Vice President Joe Biden cut short a Latin American trip to meet with Yatsenyuk in D.C. Wednesday. Yatsenyuk is scheduled to meet with House Majority Leader John Boehner Wednesday evening.
Americans are divided on President Obama’s reaction to the Crimean crisis, with 43% approving and 40% disapproving, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Nearly three-quarters of Americans see Russia as a foe, while just 19% view it as an ally –representing the widest delta since the poll began asking that question in 1995.