Obama hosts Ukraine PM in diplomatic dig at Russia
Meeting comes as Crimean peninsula prepares for referendum to determine its future
Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk attends a European leaders’ emergency summit on Ukraine, in Brussels last week. US president Barack Obama is today hosting Mr Yatsenyuk at the White House. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
In a diplomatic dig at Russia, US 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 between Mr Obama and Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes as the Crimean peninsula prepares for a weekend referendum to determine its future. Voters in the mainly pro-Russian region 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 Mr 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 Mr Yatsenyuk’s visit to the US, the Ukrainian leader will also be seeking financial assistance from Washington. He 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 Mr 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 Mr Yanukovych rejected a planned partnership agreement with the European Union in favour of historical ties with Moscow.
Days after Mr 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 or the elections planned in Ukraine in May.
A possible path for de-escalating the dispute emerged yesterday 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.
Mr Yatsenyuk will be greeted at the White House with all of the grandeur of a visit by a head of state, including an Oval Office meeting with the president. The two leaders are 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 governments, was cutting short a trip to Latin America to attend the meeting. Secretary of state John Kerry, who met Mr Yatsenyuk in Kiev last week, is also expected to have a separate meeting with the prime minister.
Mr Obama and other administration officials are expected to reinforce their commitment to boost Ukraine’s fragile new government. The US has promised Ukraine $1 billion dollars (€720 million) in loan guarantees as well as technical support as it moves toward elections.
The US leader 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 today on a Bill that 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.