WASHINGTON/BRUSSELS: President Barack Obama warned Russia Wednesday the West would be forced to apply a cost to Moscow if it fails to change course in its dispute with Ukraine, in a high-profile show of support for the country’s embattled prime minister.
The comments came as the EU geared up to slap sanctions on Russia if a diplomatic solution to the crisis isn’t reached by next week.
Obama held face-to-face talks with new Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk in the Oval Office in a search for diplomatic leverage that will force Russian President Vladimir Putin to loosen his military grip on Crimea.
Speaking to reporters, Obama renewed his pledge to punish Russia with sanctions if Putin does not back down and ridiculed plans by Crimea’s pro-Russian parliament to hold a referendum Sunday on whether the region should be annexed by Russia.
“The issue now is whether Russia is able to militarily dominate a region of somebody else’s country, engineer a slapdash referendum and ignore not only the Ukrainian constitution but a Ukrainian government that includes parties that are historically in opposition with each other,” Obama said.
Yatseniuk said his government was eager and willing to talk with Russia but insisted that his country “is and will be a part of the Western world.”
“We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty, and we will never surrender,” he said.
“Mr. Putin – tear down this wall – the wall of more intimidation and military aggression,” Yatseniuk said to reporters as he left the White House, referring to then-President Ronald Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet Union in a 1987 speech at the Berlin Wall.Obama has signed an executive order that permits Washington to impose visa bans and freeze any assets in the U.S. held by Russians or Ukrainians who provoked the crisis after pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted.
“If [Russia] continues on the path that it is on, then not only us but the international community, the European Union and others will be forced to apply a cost to Russia’s violation of international law and its encroachments on Ukraine,” Obama said.
He added that there was still time to work out a resolution that respects Russia’s interests in Ukraine.
“My hope is that as a consequence of diplomatic efforts over the next several days, that there will be a rethinking of the process that has been put forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, the EU agreed a framework for its first sanctions on Russia since the Cold War, a stronger response to the Ukraine crisis than many had expected and a mark of solidarity with Washington.
The EU sanctions, outlined in a document seen by Reuters, would slap travel bans and asset freezes on an as-yet-undecided list of people and firms accused by Brussels of violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the measures would be imposed Monday unless diplomatic progress was made.
The measures outlined by the EU are similar to steps already announced by Washington, but would have far greater impact because Europe buys most of Russia’s oil and gas exports, while the U.S. is only a minor trade partner. The EU’s 335 billion euros of trade with Russia in 2012 was worth around 10 times that of the United States.