President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. and its allies would be forced to apply a cost to Russia if it presses ahead with a referendum on Sunday that would effectively annex Crimea.
His comments came in a White House meeting with Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. With the prime minister sitting beside him Obama said "We will stand with Ukraine."
This was Obama's first meeting with Yatsenyuk and was meant to underscore U.S. support for the new government and the Ukrainian people.
The president referred to Russia's military presence in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula as a threat to Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. He also said Washington "completely rejects" Sunday's planned Russia-backed referendum that would have Crimea secede from Ukraine. He said the vote, "patched together in a few weeks," is a violation of international law.
For his part, Yatsenyuk thanked Washington for its support, and said his government is "absolutely ready and willing" for talks with Moscow. But said Ukraine will never surrender. He also said his government is preparing to sign an association agreement with the European Union later this month.
Obama said he hoped diplomatic efforts would lead to a "rethinking" of the Russian-backed referendum on Sunday, but he said if the vote does take place "We will not recognize any referendum that goes forward."
As part of the talks, Obama and Yatsenyuk discussed financial assistance for Ukraine. The U.S. has already pledged $1 billion in aid.
In a separate show of support, a group of U.S. senators, headed by Senator John McCain, will be traveling to Ukraine for meetings this weekend.
Their trip takes place as the U.S. Senate is considering a package of possible new sanctions on Russia as well as economic aid to Ukraine.
Kerry to meet again with with Lavrov
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to London to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday to try to ease tensions over Ukraine ahead of Sunday’s planned Crimea referendum.
"The Secretary will continue to reaffirm the United States' unwavering support for Ukrainian sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity, and the right of the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, without outside interference or provocation by Russia." the State Department said in a statement announcing Kerry's trip.
Last week, Kerry met with Lavrov twice in Europe to discuss the crisis over Ukraine. Neither meeting yielded any results.
On Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 403 to six to condemn Russia for violating Ukraine's sovereignty in Crimea. The resolution also calls for international monitors to go to the region.
Moscow has officially denied that its troops are participating in the occupation of Crimea. But witnesses say military personnel in unmarked uniforms arrived in Russian-registered vehicles earlier this month and freely admit to being Russian.
G-7 blasts Russia
Joined by other leaders, the G-7 is calling on Russia to cease all efforts to change the status of Ukraine’s peninsula in violation of Ukrainian and international law.
A controversial Moscow-backed referendum on the territory’s status, which the West has said it will not recognize, is planned for Sunday.
“Any such referendum would have no legal effect. Given the lack of adequate preparation and the intimidating presence of Russian troops, it would also be a deeply flawed process which would have no moral force. For all these reasons, we would not recognize the outcome,” says the G-7 statement as released by the White House.
Citing a number of international agreements the referendum would violate, the statement also stresses that “the annexation of Crimea [by Russia] could have grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states.”
“Should the Russian Federation take such a step, we will take further action, individually and collectively,” the statement adds.
The statement was issued by the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States as well as the president of the European Council and the president of the European Commission.
It also reminds Moscow of "our decision to suspend participation in any activities related to preparation of a G-8 Sochi meeting until it changes course and the environment comes back to where the G-8 is able to have a meaningful discussion."
The summit in the Russian city was scheduled for June.
In response to Russia’s actions in Crimea Republican U.S. Senator John McCain has suggested a series of measures Congress should take against Moscow.
Among the steps he recommended in an interview with VOA would be the imposition of sanctions against individuals close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, especially those responsible for human rights abuses and corruption.
The senator also suggested the U.S. “start [its] missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, [and] accelerate the path of Georgia and Moldova into NATO,” – steps McCain believes would “change… Putin’s behavior.”
He also called on the Obama administration to stop pushing the “reset button” with Russia and to “understand Putin for what he is: a KGB colonel apparatchik who said the worst disaster of the 20th century was the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
Senator McCain will lead a delegation that includes seven other U.S. senators to Ukraine this weekend as a show of support during the country’s confrontation with Russia. The group will meet with Ukrainian political leaders and other groups.
The group includes Republicans John Barrasso of Wyoming, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Senators McCain and Murphy visited Kyiv in December, at the height of anti-government protests that eventually forced pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country.
EU readies sanctions
European Union member states have agreed on the wording of sanctions on Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes against those deemed responsible for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.
The seven-page document describes in detail the restrictive measures to be taken against Moscow if it does not reverse course in Crimea and begin talks with international mediators on efforts to resolve the crisis over Ukraine.
With the wording of the sanctions agreed, the EU is still working on the names of individuals to be targeted.
European officials have indicated that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will not be on the list, so that channels of communication can be kept open.
Instead the list is expected to focus on targets close to Putin in the security services and military establishment as well as on prominent members of the Russian parliament.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that the European Union will impose sanctions on Russia if it does not move to set up a contact group to discuss the Crimea crisis. Merkel also said that the EU could sign a political association agreement with Ukraine's new government during an EU summit next week.
Paris snubbing Moscow?
France threatened on Wednesday to pull out of planned ministerial talks with Russia next week unless Moscow helps to reduce tension between Russia and Ukraine.
The meeting is a regular fixture of bilateral relations between Russia and France but happens to be scheduled this year for March 18, two days after the planned Crimean referendum.
“This meeting can be held depending on progress over Ukraine... if on the Russian side there are elements that allow us to think this meeting will be useful,” an official at the office of French President Francois Hollande said.
The meeting would involve the foreign and defense of both countries.
OSCE’s Crimea mission blocked
The Russian military appears to have been involved with the armed groups who set up road blocks and prevented an unarmed OSCE observer mission from entering Ukraine's Crimea region last week, the United States said on Wednesday.
The U.S. diplomatic mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) quoted a report by the OSCE observer team which said the gunmen appeared to have Russian military equipment and vehicles.
When the OSCE military observer team tried to get into Crimea last Saturday, warning shots were fired and it was turned back.
The monitors were “blocked five times in multiple locations by heavily armed guards lacking clear national identification,” a U.S. statement said.
It quoted the team's report as saying that its observations “produced significant evidence of equipment consistent with the presence of Russian Federation military personnel [in the vicinity of] the various roadblocks encountered during the period of the observation.”
The U.S. ambassador to the OSCE, Daniel Baer, said in the statement that the findings “…clearly suggests direct involvement by the Russian Federation….”
Russia will send several warplanes to its military ally, Belarus, in response to increased NATO activity near the borders of the ex-Soviet republic, the commander of the Belorussian air force was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
President Alexander Lukashenko had said earlier that Belarus would ask Russia to deploy 12 to 15 warplanes on its territory after the United States and Poland began war games that are expected to involve at least 12 U.S. F-16 fighter jets.
Belarus borders Russia, Ukraine and NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Further south, a joint exercise of U.S., Bulgarian and Romanian naval forces in the Black Sea started on Wednesday. The drills were planned before the crisis in Ukraine but were reportedly moved up to underscore support for NATO nations near Russia.
Some reporting by Reuters