In a diplomatic dig at Russia, President Barack Obama is hosting the new Ukrainian prime minister at the White House, a high-profile gesture aimed at cementing the West’s allegiance to Ukraine’s fledgling government.
The meeting on Wednesday between Obama and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes as a pro-Russian area of Ukraine readies for a referendum Sunday to determine its future. Voters in the Crimean Peninsula will be given two options: becoming part of Russia, or remaining in Ukraine with broader powers.
The US and Europe have declared the referendum illegitimate, saying Ukraine’s central government must be involved in decisions about its territory. The dispute over the future of the former Soviet republic has conjured up echoes of the Cold War tensions between East and West.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Yatsenyuk’s visit was meant to signal “that we strongly support Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.”
Amid the symbolism of Yatsenyuk’s visit to the US, the Ukrainian leader will also be seeking financial assistance from Washington. Yatsenyuk says his country needs the West’s help to defend itself against neighbouring Russia, a nation he said is “armed to the teeth.”
Ukraine’s parliament installed Yatsenyuk as head of the country’s interim government after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital of Kiev following three months of popular protests. The uprising started when Yanukovych rejected a planned partnership agreement with the European Union in favour of historical ties with Moscow.
Days after Yanukovych left Kiev, Russia moved military forces into Crimea, defying warnings from the US. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far brushed aside punishments levied by the West following the incursion, including visa bans, the threat of economic sanctions and a halt to planning for an international economic summit Russia is scheduled to host in June.
Russia does not recognise the new government nor the elections planned in Ukraine in May.
A possible path for de-escalating the dispute emerged on Tuesday, when Crimea’s parliament said that if the public votes to become part of Russia, the peninsula will declare itself independent and propose becoming a Russian state. That could give Moscow the option of saying there is no need for Crimea to become part of Russia while keeping it firmly within its sphere of influence.
Meanwhile Ukraine’s acting president has said the country will not use its army to stop Crimea from seceding, the latest sign that a Russian annexation of the strategic peninsula may be imminent.
Oleksandr Turchynov’s Tuesday comments came after the Crimean parliament voted for independence ahead of a referendum on joining Russia, while Washington and Moscow locked horns in one of their fiercest clashes since the Cold War.
The interim leader said intervening on the southeastern Black Sea peninsula, where Kremlin-backed forces have seized de facto control, would leave Ukraine exposed on its eastern border, where he said Russia has massed “significant tank units”.
“We cannot launch a military operation in Crimea, as we would expose the eastern border and Ukraine would not be protected,” Turchynov said.
“They’re provoking us to have a pretext to intervene on the Ukrainian mainland... (but) we cannot follow the scenario written by the Kremlin.”
Sunday’s referendum is being organised by Crimea’s self-appointed leaders, who are not recognised by the new pro-European government in Kiev, installed after three months of protests that resulted in 100 deaths and the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Conversely, Turchynov is not recognised by Moscow, which still insists Yanukovych is Ukraine’s legitimate president.
Turchynov described the secession referendum as a “sham” whose outcome would be decided “in the offices of the Kremlin”.
World powers have repeatedly called for Moscow and Kiev to come together to seek a solution to the escalating crisis, but Turchynov said Russia’s leaders were refusing any such talks.
“Unfortunately, for now Russia is rejecting a diplomatic solution to the conflict,” he said.
Western powers, led by the US and Germany, insist that forming an “international contact group” is the way out of the crisis over the culturally fractured ex-Soviet state, which erupted into protest after Yanukovych pulled out of a deal on closer ties with the European Union in favour of a now-frozen bailout from Russia.
Yatsenyuk will be greeted at the White House on Wednesday by all of the grandeur of a head of state visit, including an Oval Office meeting with Obama. The two leaders were expected to make brief comments to the media following their discussions.
Vice President Joe Biden, who has served as a primary administration contact with Ukraine’s old and new government, was cutting short a trip to Latin America to attend the meeting. Secretary of State John Kerry, who met with Yatsenyuk in Kiev last week, is also expected to have a separate meeting with the prime minister.
Obama and other administration officials are expected to reinforce their commitment to boost Ukraine’s fragile new government. The US has promised Ukraine US$1 billion in loan guarantees, as well as technical support as it moves toward elections.
Obama has urged Congress to quickly approve the loan guarantee, which is supposed to supplement additional assistance from the International Monetary Fund. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to vote on Wednesday on a bill that both provides aid to Ukraine and hits Russia with sanctions.
A major sticking point had been a provision in the bill to enhance the lending capacity of the IMF. The Obama administration has pushed hard for acceptance of the IMF changes as part of the legislation authorising the assistance.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee chairman, said on Tuesday IMF revisions would be included in the bill.
The IMF’s 2010 revisions expand the power of emerging countries within the global lending body and make some of its funds more readily available. The United States is the only country on the IMF board that hasn’t accepted the changes yet.
Senator Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday he supported the IMF changes and viewed them as a “national security” concern. But several House Republicans have voiced opposition.
The House last week voted overwhelmingly in favour of the loans to Ukraine. The legislation didn’t include Russia sanctions or any language on the IMF.
The European Union has pledged US$15 billion in assistance to Ukraine, though even that falls well short of the US$35 billion in international rescue loans Kiev says it needs over the next two years.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse