WASHINGTON: The United States welcomed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Thursday on a visit ringing with symbolism, which nevertheless underlined the limits of Western support for Kiev in its showdown with Russia.
Poroshenko sat side-by-side with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and drew multiple standing ovations from lawmakers in a ceremonial joint meeting of both chambers of Congress.
But his appeal for NATO to grant Ukraine non-member ally status to help bolster its defenses appeared to make little headway, despite his warning that non-lethal aid like “blankets” can’t win wars.
The visit came at a potentially pivotal point in the showdown between Russia and Ukraine, which has drawn the United States into its worst confrontation with the Kremlin since the end of the Cold War.
New talks between Ukraine, separatists, Russia and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe will take place on Friday in Minsk, according to a Belarusian official.
But, reflecting the tense atmosphere, the Ukrainian government accused Moscow of massing 4,000 troops on border of Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
The White House had said that the mere image of Obama and Poroshenko sitting side-by-side would “be worth at least a thousand words, both in English and in Russian.”
Reporters were ushered into the Oval Office, after the meeting between the two presidents, also attended by Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top US national security officials.
Obama praised Poroshenko for providing “critical” leadership at a “very, very important time in Ukraine’s history” and endorsed his “difficult” decision to pass laws offering self-rule to some eastern districts of Ukraine to appease separatists.
Obama also condemned Russian “aggression, first in Crimea and most recently in portions of eastern Ukraine,” which he said was designed to undermine the country’s territorial integrity and Poroshenko’s efforts to cement economic reforms.
President Poroshenko is … the right man for the job,” said Obama, promising to continue rallying NATO and Western nations in Ukraine’s support.
Poroshenko expressed his beleaguered nation’s thanks for foreign support, telling the United States: “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
He said the only way to ease the crisis in eastern parts of Ukraine was the fragile peace process.
And he called for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, the closure of the Russian border to other troops and ammunition, and the release of Ukrainian “hostages.”
Earlier, following in the footsteps of leaders like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Charles de Gaulle, the former chocolate tycoon addressed Congress, and was more explicit than when he sat with Obama.
“There are moments in history when freedom is more than just a political concept,” he said.
“At those moments, freedom becomes (an) ultimate choice which defines who you are.”
Nostalgia for the Soviet Union and European imperialism had conjured up a “revisionist” attitude in Moscow, he said, and warned Russian-backed proxy wars and extremist movements first seen in Crimea must be confined.
“If they are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread throughout the globe,” Poroshenko said.
In a speech punctuated by multiple standing ovations, Poroshenko called on NATO to grant Ukraine special status to help it beef up its defenses.
He also asked for more political support, tougher sanctions on Russia and lethal military aid.
“Blankets and night-vision goggles are important,” he said. “But one can not win a war with blankets.”
A senior US official said Washington would offer Ukraine another $46 million in non-lethal aid, mainly for border and military guards.
But Poroshenko did not secure US support for its request for non-NATO member ally status, which Moscow would likely view as a provocation.
The official said that, because of its existing ties to the western alliance, including in the NATO-Ukraine commission, Kiev already enjoyed the benefits it would get from such status, including security help, advice, training and joint exercises.
The Obama administration also will not heed calls from Congress to send arms to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces, reasoning that such a step would not alter the dynamics of power between Kiev and Moscow.
“The kinds of weaponry that are being discussed would not have a decisive effect,” the official said.
After emerging from his talks with Obama, Poroshenko offered inconclusive comments on the question of lethal arms.
“I asked the president to increase the cooperation in security and defense, and I received a positive answer,” he said.
Then, in a sign of his flair for retail politics, Poroshenko stopped his motorcade outside the White House and marched across a park to greet a crowd of flag-waving supporters.
Poroshenko was in Washington two days after parliament in Kiev ratified a historic pact with the EU and adopted legislation offering self-rule to the east, in votes crucial to the future shape of the nation.
Poroshenko’s offer won Russia’s support, although pro-Moscow rebels were more dismissive, pledging to fight on for independence.
The situation in the flashpoint city of Donetsk appeared calm Thursday, after days of shelling that killed around 30 civilians and soldiers.