Hailing the U.S. partnership with Italy and all of Europe as a “cornerstone of our security," President Barack Obama hailed the transatlantic unity on the issue of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and welcomed an assistance package for Ukraine, just approved International Monetary Fund.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi during a visit to Rome, Obama called the IMF decision to extend Ukraine up to $18 billion in loans a “big step forward.” The U.S. Congress on Thursday approved another $1 billion.
Obama expressed hope that in light of current tensions with Russia it will help stabilize Ukraine’s economy, meet the needs of the Ukrainian people in the long term, and put the country on a path of growth similar to that of Poland.
Referring to the loan package as the international community’s “concrete signal to Ukraine,” he also said he was hopeful that it will enable the country’s new government to conduct the reforms needed to leave corruption in the past.
On Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Obama reiterated international condemnation of the move and expressed hope that Moscow will still opt to resolve the crisis in a peaceful way.
Obama added that the U.S. will do everything possible to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
UNGA vote on Crimea
Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday passed a non-binding resolution declaring invalid Crimea's Moscow-backed referendum earlier this month on seceding from Ukraine, in a vote that Western nations said highlighted Russia's isolation.
There were 100 votes in favor, 11 against and 58 abstentions in the 193-nation assembly. A number of countries did not participate in the vote.
Western diplomats said the number of “yes” votes was higher than expected despite what they said were Moscow's aggressive lobbying efforts against the resolution.
The UNGA resolution echoes a text Moscow vetoed earlier this month in the Security Council. The approved declaration dismisses Crimea's vote as “having no validity [or] basis for any alteration of the status of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea….”
Although the resolution is non-binding, Western diplomats said it sends a strong political message about Russia's lack of broad support on the Crimean issue.
Aside from Russia, voting against the resolution were Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Russia troop build-up
Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine's national security council, Andriy Parubiy, says Russia has close to 100,000 troops along Ukraine's borders in the north, south, and east.
He said during a webcast to a Washington audience that Russian forces are in full readiness to strike.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week the solders are involved in "springtime exercises." He assured U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that they would not cross the border.
Western experts believe the number of Russian forces near eastern and southern Ukraine is closer to 30,000.
Quoting two unnamed Obama administration officials, CNN has reported that, according to a U.S. assessment of the situation, the likelihood of a Russian incursion into eastern parts of Ukraine is now greater than it has been before.
The officials have been quoted as having seen several worrying signs in the past three to four days.
Countering Moscow's claims that Russian troops positioned near the border with Ukraine are conducting routine military exercises, the Pentagon says that there is no indication supporting that.
"They continue to reinforce, and it continues to be unclear what exactly the intent there is... We've seen no specific indications that exercises are taking place," said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby on Thursday.
An incursion into eastern Ukraine, if deep enough, could enable Russia to establish a land connection to Crimea. Currently, Russia has access to the Black Sea peninsula only by air and sea.
From local sources, VOA has learned that the Russian military has established a field hospital in the Bryansk region, about 20 kilometers from the Russia-Ukraine border, that some 60 train cars have arrived near the border with supplies and that the frontier is being patrolled by more than a dozen Russian drones.
The information provided to VOA could not be independently confirmed.
US Senate, House pass bills on Ukraine
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives easily passed bills on Thursday to provide aid to Ukraine, back a $1 billion loan guarantee for the Kyiv government and impose sanctions over Russia's annexation of Crimea.
The Senate passed its legislation by voice vote. The House voted for its legislation by 399-19.
The bills also calls for additional defense equipment and military training to countries in central and eastern Europe, including Ukraine, although exact assistance levels are still to be determined.
In a statement following the vote in the upper chamber of the U.S. legislature, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, praised the bill’s passage.
“With today’s vote, the Senate sent a clear message of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and indignation for those responsible for the invasion of... Crimea. Russia must be held accountable for its blatant violations of international agreements.”
According to Cardin, the punitive measures the bill imposes should make clear to Russia's president that there are costs to pay for illicit actions.
"The sanctions leveled by Congress are intended to show that Mr. Putin’s inability to conform to international norms, and honor Russia’s agreements, will come at a heavy price," said Cardin.
The two chambers will now have to agree on how to handle minor differences between the two pieces of legislation before a final bill can be submitted for President Obama's signature.
IMF pledges assistance to Ukraine
The International Monetary Fund has pledged to provide Ukraine with up to $18 billion in loans.
But the country must enact tough economic reforms in exchange.
The IMF says the $14 to $18 billion it will provide will combine with contributions from the international community to total up to $27 billion in total assistance in the next two years.
Without the IMF-mandated austerity measures, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told parliament Thursday Ukraine's economy could contract by 10 percent this year. He said the country is on the brink of "economic and financial bankruptcy."
The IMF statement Thursday says Ukraine's recent economic policies have dramatically slowed growth and brought foreign currency reserves to a "critically low level."
The IMF's required reforms for Ukraine include a flexible exchange rate, higher energy prices for consumers and a restructuring of Ukrainian energy giant Naftogaz.
The reforms will hit the population hard, which could affect support for the interim government.
The White House, in a statement relased Thursday called the IMF loan "a powerful sign of support from the international community for the Ukrainian government, as we help them stabilize and grow their economy, and move their democracy forward."
Tymoshenko launches presidential bid
Ukrainian former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, released from jail last month after her arch-foe Viktor Yanukovych fled from power, announced on Thursday she would run again for president in an election slated for May 25.
Tymoshenko, 53, a powerful speaker known for a trademark hair-braid, served twice as prime minister and ran for president in 2010, only to be narrowly defeated in a run-off vote by Yanukovych.
Yanukovych subsequently launched a campaign against Tymoshenko and her allies and she was jailed in 2011 for abuse of office linked to a gas deal she brokered with Russia in 2009.
She served two years of a seven-year term, mainly under prison guard in a hospital in Kharkiv, before being released when Yanukovych fled on February 20 and was subsequently ousted by parliament.
Some information for this report was provided by VOA's Michael Bowman, as well as AP, AFP and Reuters.