US President Barack Obama will meet Ukraine’s president-elect next week during a European tour aimed at shoring up regional security amid reports that a second team of European monitors went missing in the country’s restive east.
The meeting in Warsaw will come less than two weeks after pro-European Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon, was elected in the shadow of a showdown between Washington and Moscow over the fate of Ukraine that has brought relations to their lowest level since the cold war.
In Warsaw, Obama will attend celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first post-communist elections.
“This is an important time for President Obama to affirm directly to president-elect Poroshenko our commitment to... Ukraine,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security adviser.
Rhodes said Obama would support Ukraine’s efforts to reduce tension and pursue dialogue and the unity of the former Soviet republic.
“We very much admired the people of Ukraine who turned out in huge numbers to elect president-elect Poroshenko. We have admired his commitment to dialogue,” Rhodes said.
“This will be an important time for the president to check in directly.”
Also in Warsaw, Obama will hold talks with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
He and Komorowski will host a meeting with the leaders of eastern and central European states - formerly in the orbit of the former Soviet Union - including Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
The meetings in Poland form part of a wider European trip for Obama, who is concentrating on reinvigorating the NATO alliance following the trauma of the Ukraine crisis and underlining “iron clad” US security guarantees to allies, Rhodes said.
Obama is also keen to focus on efforts to diversify Europe’s energy supplies, which are currently deeply reliant on Russia - a fact that gives Moscow leverage during regional security crises.
He will also travel to Normandy for the 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day landings of allied troops during the second world war, where he will come face to face with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But there are no plans for Obama to hold a formal bilateral meeting with the Russian leader.
Obama will be at the Elysee Palace, French President Francois Hollande’s official residence, on the same day Putin holds talks there, on Thursday.
Washington has been pursuing a campaign to isolate Putin over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region - which has included the cancellation of the G8 summit in Sochi next month, and Moscow’s de-facto expulsion from the group.
Poroshenko - a 48-year-old confectionery tycoon who backs closer ties with Europe but once enjoyed good relations with top Russian officials - won nearly 54.7 per cent in presidential elections Sunday thanks to a message focused on bringing a quick end to the separatist drive in eastern Ukraine.
He has since reached out to Putin and promised to hold his first talks with the Russian leader when they both attend the D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6.
But Putin has yet to confirm a meeting, and Washington has once again called on Moscow to take a more constructive approach.
Kiev meanwhile sent a first gas payment of US$786 million to Moscow, paving the way for further talks next week to avert a Russian gas shutdown to Ukraine.
“We don’t have a final deal yet but we have made progress,” EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger said after mediating between Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak and his Ukrainian counterpart Yuriy Prodan, as well as the CEOs of both national energy companies during talks in Berlin.
It was the third Russia-Ukraine meeting aiming to resolve the bitter standoff between Moscow and Kiev, held before a deadline next Tuesday when Russia had threatened to cut off gas to Ukraine.
Russia’s energy giant Gazprom has raised gas prices and demanded US$5.17 billion from the crisis-hit and cash-strapped country for past gas shipments and June deliveries.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said on Friday it had been unable to establish contact with four of its monitors and their local translator since the group was stopped by “armed men” at a roadblock in the eastern region of Lugansk.
The Vienna-based organisation - formed in the 1970s as a forum for dialogue during the Cold War and now a principal player in the worst East-West standoff since that era - added that another four members detained by rebels in the neighbouring Donetsk region on Monday were still missing.
Rebel commanders in both regions have confirmed their detention and refuse to say when they may be released.
The defence ministry in Kiev said on Friday that the eastern insurgency had thus far claimed the lives of 49 Ukrainian servicemen and 128 civilians and separatists.
But the recent appearance among the rebels of trained gunmen from Chechnya - a mostly Muslim region that fell under Kremlin control following two post-Soviet wars for independence - has fuelled fears of the conflict being transformed into a proxy war involving elements from other unstable regions of the former Soviet Union.