WASHINGTON – President Obama delivered an Oval Office rebuke Wednesday to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin with Ukraine’s new prime minister at his side, warning that the United States and the international community would be “forced to apply a cost” should Russia refuse to withdraw from Crimea.
“There’s another path available and we hope that President Putin is willing to seize that path,” Obama told reporters as he sat next to newly installed Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk.
“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 its territorial integrity.”
Obama said the Ukrainian government is willing to talk with Russia and engage in a process that he said “could lead to different arrangements over time” for the Ukrainian region of Crimea.
“But that’s not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you,” he said.
The high-stakes meeting came five days before a controversial Russia-backed referendum in Crimea on leaving Ukraine and joining Russia is to be held. The State Department announced that Secretary of State John F. Kerry will head to London for a meeting Friday with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.
The hastily called summit – after Kerry refused Lavrov’s invitation to Moscow earlier this week – appears to be an eleventh-hour attempt to get Putin to accept the White House’s offer of an “off-ramp” to ditch the secession referendum and open talks with the Ukrainians.
Obama expressed hope that Kerry’s mission to London would work out, though he did not seem especially optimistic.
“But we’ll keep on pressing,” the president said, adding that he and the international community “completely reject” what he called a “slapdash” election.
Yatsenyuk, a former opposition leader who just two weeks ago was elected prime minister, sat in a wing chair to Obama’s right and spoke resolutely.
“My country feels that the United States stands by the Ukrainian people,” he said in fluent English. “Mr. President, it’s all about freedom. We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty, and we will never surrender.”
Yatsenyuk later spoke to an overflow crowd at the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy institute, thanking the United States and the European Union for responding to the crisis “with one voice.” He said Ukraine still considers Russia a partner and wants to get back to real bilateral relations, but it can’t with tanks and troops present as part of an “incursion.”
“If it’s about Crimea, we as a Ukrainian government are ready to start a national dialogue to increase the rights of autonomous republic of Crimea, starting with taxes and ending with other aspects, like language issues,” he said. “We’re ready to start this dialogue – but the constitutional one, in the Ukrainian Parliament, having everyone sitting at the table.”