WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - President Obama on Wednesday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to end Russia's military incursion in Ukraine or "pay a cost" with the international community.
Obama's comments came following an Oval Office meeting with Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, just days before voters in his country's Crimean region are to head to the polls for a hastily called referendum to decide whether they will become part of Russia.
"The current government in Kiev has recognized and has communicated directly to the Russian federation their desire to manage through this process diplomatically," Obama said. "But what the prime minister I think is rightly insistent on is they cannot have a country outside the Ukraine dictate to them how they should arrange their affairs.
"There is a constitutional process in place and a set of elections they can move forward on that could, in fact, 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."
Yatsenyuk urged Russia to start a dialogue with the new Ukrainian government, but sent a blunt message to Putin.
"We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty, and we will never surrender," the Ukrainian leader said.
Hours before meeting with the Ukrainian leader, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that he will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London on Friday. The meeting will amount to an eleventh-hour attempt to persuade the Russians to stop the referendum and de-escalate the situation.
"In my discussions with Minister Lavrov, I have made it clear that there are many reasons for Russia to choose a path of de-escalation and of political solution here," Kerry told a House committee on Wednesday, where he announced his plans to meet with Lavrov. "We believe that interests can be met and that most importantly, the desires of the people of Ukraine can be respected, and that the international law can be respected."
Kerry and Lavrov have struck up a strong connection, even as Obama's relationship with Putin has proved to be strained - bordering on awkward - as they've butted heads over Russia's support of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.
In fact, it was Kerry and Lavrov who carried on back channel talks that led to U.S. and Russia reaching an agreement on securing Syria's chemical weapons stockpile last summer.
But this crisis involving a former Soviet satellite is much more personal to the Russians. And finding an out for Putin that would allow him to back away from the referendum, scheduled for March 16, and save face is complicated.
Obama has spoken with Putin directly at least three times since Russian troops were deployed in Crimea last month. Obama continues to urge Putin to accept a plan involving international monitoring in Crimea, while Russia troops would return to the military post it had maintained in Crimea before the crisis erupted.
"There is another path available, and we hope that President Putin is willing to seize that path," Obama said. "But if he does not, I am very confident that the international community will stand strongly behind the Ukrainian government in preserving its unity and territorial integrity."
The White House has sought to underscore its stance that the Russians have a vested interest in what happens in Ukraine.
Member countries of of the Group of 8 - minus Russia - reiterated their opposition to the Crimea referendum on Wednesday, calling the vote illegal and vowing "further action" if Russia annexes the peninsula.
"Any such referendum would have no legal effect," the so-called G-7 countries said in a statement. "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. "
Obama's meeting with Yatsenyuk, whose interim term is to end in May when Ukraine holds elections, comes one day after the House passed a symbolic resolution condemning Russia for its military incursion in Crimea and urging Obama to move forward with even tougher sanctions against the Russians. On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation that would send aid to Ukraine and called for sanctions against officials responsible for violating Ukraine's sovereignty.
The president was joined by Vice President Biden and Kerry for the meeting at the White House with the Ukraine premier. Yatsenyuk is also scheduled to meet later on Wednesday with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, at the U.S. Capitol.
The Obama administration has called for offering Ukraine, which is facing deep financial uncertainty, $1 billion in loan guarantees. Legislation is still pending in Congress to make the cash available to Kiev, and it is expected that Yatsenyuk will press Boehner for an even deeper commitment from the United States.
By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
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