WASHINGTON, D.C.: The East-West split re-opened by the crisis in Ukraine hardened on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) when President Barack Obama threw Washington’s weight firmly behind Kiev in its standoff with Moscow.
Obama welcomed Ukraine’s interim premier 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 avail–able 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 inter–national 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.”
After a series of meetings in Washington, Yatsenyuk was to head to New York on Thursday for talks at the United Nations.
Breakaway leaders on Uk–raine’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 Ya–nukovych was overthrown by a street revolt.
Obama said he hopes the crisis can be resolved through dip–lomacy, but Ukraine and the West do not recognize the referendum and Moscow does not recognize the Kiev government.
The US 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 cons–titutional process after up–coming 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 plain 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 territo-rial 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.”