KYIV— As the U.S. president announced tougher economic sanctions to punish Russia for moving to annex Crimea, one of his top diplomats was in the Ukrainian capital to reassure nervous Ukrainians of America's solidarity with them while they are vulnerable.
Wendy Sherman, the fourth highest ranking official in the U.S. State Department said with her voice sometimes wavering, that she could hardly hold back tears after walking through Kyiv's Maidan (independence) square.
The heart of the Ukrainian capital is dotted with floral makeshift memorials for the more than 100 protesters who died in clashes with police prior to the president fleeing the country for neighboring Russia.
After moving to annex Ukraine's predominately Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula, Moscow is complaining that the rights of Russian speakers are also being violated in other parts of Ukraine.
"If I listen to the Russian rhetoric I would have expected to walk through the streets of Kyiv and be attacked by dangerous elements. I was approached by schoolchildren with flowers," Sherman told reporters when asked if reconciliation is possible with Moscow amid such threats.
Sherman met Thursday with leaders of the interim government who are in place until the scheduled May 25 elections.
Former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States Oleg Shamshur said his government is pressing her for three things, foremost of which is stronger sanctions targeting the Russian economy.
"Make it really painful for the ruling regime in Russia," Shamshur urged. "Secondly, it would be pressing for the military technical preparation because our army is in pretty bad shape. And, thirdly, we would be looking for enhanced cooperation, first of all, to prop up the Ukrainian economy."
He said that will require significant financial assistance.
President Obama on Thursday announced additional sanctions on Russian individuals and one bank while calling for the international community to provide immediate financial aid to Kyiv. In retaliation, Moscow imposed entry bans on nine U.S. lawmakers and officials.
Meanwhile, Russia has given Ukraine a Friday deadline to pull all of its military forces out of Crimea.
VOA News asked Ukraine's Deputy Defense Minister, Leonid Polyakov, if Kyiv would comply.
"I should say that unfortunately the curiosity about orders we will be giving tomorrow [those who] want to know are not only Voice of America but those who want to curb our best efforts," he responded.
Media reports say Ukraine's border guards are already pulling back to the mainland while Russia has begun handing out passports to Crimean residents.