WASHINGTON – The East-West split reopened by the crisis in Ukraine hardened Wednesday when President Barack Obama threw Washington’s weight firmly behind Kiev in its stand-off with Moscow.
Obama welcomed Ukraine’s interim 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,” Obama told White House reporters, sitting alongside Yatsenyuk after their talks at the Oval Office.
“But if he does not, I’m very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government.”
Yatsenyuk thanked Washington for its support and declared: “We fight for our freedom. We fight for our independence. We fight for our sovereignty. And we will never surrender.”
Breakaway leaders on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, 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 Ukraine’s former pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown by a street revolt.
Obama said he hopes the crisis can be resolved through diplomacy, but Ukraine and the West do not recognize the referendum and Moscow does not recognize the Kiev government.
The U.S. 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.”
And he made clear 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 plans to try to iron out details of a $35 billion (25-billion-euro) aid package he says his nation’s teetering economy needs to stay afloat.
He met Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, who described their talks as “productive.”
Yatsenyuk also visited the World Bank.
Ukraine has declared it will not recognize Crimea’s referendum, and has heavyweight support from the United States and European Union, but admits it would be powerless to intervene militarily.
Putin’s diplomatic isolation intensified when the G-7 industrialized nations urged Russia “to cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”
“The annexation of Crimea could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states,” said a joint statement from the G-7 powers.
EU foreign ministers are to discuss punitive measures against senior Russian officials at a meeting on Monday. European leaders will then meet at a March 20 to 21 summit 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.
It was Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the deal in November — choosing instead to seek closer economic ties with Moscow — that sparked the deadly protests that eventually ended his rule.
Washington said Moscow could still avoid sanctions if it softened its stance on Crimea during talks in London on Friday between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia’s first military involvement in a neighboring country since its brief 2008 war with Georgia has sparked an explosive security crisis and exposed previous rifts between Western allies over ways to deal with Putin’s apparently calculated efforts to rebuild vestiges of the Soviet Union.
Washington has already imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russians held responsible for violating the territorial integrity of the culturally splintered Ukraine and its 46 million people.
But the European Union — its financial and energy sectors much more dependent on Russia than those of the United States — only threatened tougher measures after taking the lighter step of suspending free travel and broad economic treaty talks.
Yet international opposition has so far done little to slow Russia’s attempt to redraw Europe’s post-war borders by absorbing a region handed to Ukraine when it was still a Soviet republic in 1954.