WASHINGTON – Counting down to a high-stakes Crimean referendum, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that the U.S. would “completely reject” a vote opening the door for the strategic Ukrainian peninsula to join Russia if the election goes ahead on Sunday. Adding pressure on Russia, the Senate advanced a package of potentially tough economic sanctions against Moscow.
Obama made a point of welcoming Ukraine’s new leader to the White House, declaring as they sat side by side that he hoped there would be a “rethinking” by Russian President Vladimir Putin of the referendum. Obama derided the vote as a “slap-dash referendum” and warned that if it occurs, the international community “will be forced to apply a cost to Russia’s violation of international law.”
Secretary of State John Kerry also was talking tough, telling Congress, “It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made, and it can get ugly in multiple directions.” Kerry will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in London in a last-ditch effort to halt the referendum.
Amid the maneuvering, Obama met in the Oval Office with new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, praising him and the Ukrainian people as the two sat for TV coverage. The meeting was aimed at showcasing the United States’ commitment to Ukraine, the former Soviet republic at the center of rising tensions between the East and West.
Yatsenyuk, a 39-year-old pro-Western official who speaks fluent English, defiantly declared that his country “will never surrender” in its fight to protect its territory.
He arrived in Washington seeking financial help to stabilize his fledgling government. The Senate bill that advanced out of committee on Wednesday would authorize $1 billion in loan guarantees.
The measure, which next would go to the full Senate, also would allow the Obama administration to impose economic penalties on Russian officials responsible for the intervention in Crimea or culpable of gross corruption.
The bill stops short of going after Russian banks or energy companies as some legislators proposed, but it would give Secretary of State John Kerry more leeway as he readies for diplomatic talks with his Russian counterpart in Europe on Friday.
Obama urged Congress to move quickly to finalize the loan guarantees, which are supposed to supplement $15 billion in assistance from the European Union.
The money pledged thus far is less than Ukraine says it will need in order to recover from its recent political upheaval. The country’s pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev for Russia in late February amid growing protests over his decision to scrap an agreement to boost ties with Europe.
Shortly after Yanukovych left, Russia began moving military forces into Crimea, a strategically important peninsula where 60 percent of the population is ethnic Russian.
Yatsenyuk is serving as head of Ukraine’s government in the lead-up to national elections in May.