AFP – Ukraine’s acting president told AFP he would not wage war over Crimea as the ex-Soviet state’s premier prepared Wednesday to seek US President Barack Obama’s help against Russia’s expansionist threat.
The first meeting between Obama and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes with the nation on the EU’s eastern border in danger of breaking apart when the predominantly ethnic Russian region holds a Moscow-backed referendum Sunday on switching over to Kremlin rule.
Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said his heavily outnumbered army would never try to seize back the Black Sea peninsula from Russian troops who made their land grab days after the 22 February ouster in Kiev of pro-Kremlin leader Viktor Yanukovych.
“We cannot launch a military operation in Crimea, as we would expose the eastern border and Ukraine would not be protected,” Turchynov said in an interview with AFP.
Turchynov also said Russian President Vladimir Putin had so far resisted intense international pressure and refused all contacts with Kiev aimed at resolving the worst breakdown in East-West relations since the Cold War.
“Unfortunately, for now Russia is rejecting a diplomatic solution to the conflict,” he said. “They are refusing all contact at foreign ministry and top government level.”
Russia’s first military involvement in a neighbouring country since its brief 2008 war with Georgia has sparked an explosive security crisis and exposed major rifts between Western allies over ways to deal with Putin’s undisguised efforts to rebuild vestiges of the Soviet state.
Washington has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on Russians held responsible for violating the territorial integrity of the culturally splintered nation of 46 million people.
But the European Union – its financial and energy sectors much more dependent on Russia than those of the United States – has only threatened tougher measures after taking the lighter step of suspending free travel and broad economic treaty talks.
The standoff has also seen US Secretary of State John Kerry deliver a snub of immense diplomatic proportions by refusing a visit to Moscow that could have included a meeting with the Kremlin chief.
European Commission President Jose Barroso said the Group of Seven most developed economies would later on Wednesday issue a joint “call on Russia to cease all efforts to annex Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea”.
But the international community’s almost unanimous rejection of the referendum’s legitimacy has done little to slow Russia’s attempt to redraw Europe’s post-war borders by absorbing a region that was handed to Ukraine as a “gift” when it was still a Soviet republic in 1954.
Russia’s parliament is due on 21 March to consider legislation that would simplify the procedure under which Moscow can annex part of another country that has proclaimed independence – as Crimean lawmakers did Tuesday.
Ukraine’s soldiers and marines have won plaudits from Western leaders for refusing to open fire against Russian troops and Kremlin-backed militia who have encircled their bases and kept their ships from going out to sea.
Turchynov said that as commander in chief he fully realised the futility of launching an all-out war against a much larger invading force that has nuclear weapons and tens of thousands of additional troops stationed just inside Russia.
“Significant tank units are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border,” the acting president said in the interview.
“They’re provoking us to have a pretext to intervene on the Ukrainian mainland… [but] we cannot follow the scenario written by the Kremlin.”
Putin has accused Turchynov and Yatsenyuk of rising to power through an “unconstitutional coup” that came at the apex of three months of pro-Western protests that claimed 100 lives and forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia.
Turchynov said Moscow has turned down his overtures for dialogue despite efforts by leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel to set up an “international contact group” through which all sides could air their grievances in search of a compromise.
He called the Crimea referendum a “sham” whose outcome had been already decided “in the offices of the Kremlin”.
Turchynov also rubbished as “madness” Putin’s claim that Russian-speakers in the southeast of Europe’s largest country by landmass needed his army’s “protection” from the harassment they faced with the rise of new and more nationalist leaders to power in Kiev.
The White House is leaving no doubt about the message it intends to send to Russia with the visit of Yatsenyuk – a leader Moscow considers illegitimate.
He will be greeted by Obama in the Oval Office – a symbol of US power – like any other foreign leader and also meet Vice President Joe Biden who rushed back from a trip to South America to join the talks.
Washington said Yatsenyuk’s reception was intended to show that it believed that Kiev’s interim government has been playing a responsible role in the crisis.
“We strongly support Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
But Carney also stressed that the White House was still offering the Kremlin an “off ramp” for ending the dispute without any bloodshed and with Ukraine’s territorial integrity held intact.
Yatsenyuk will also use the chance to iron out the details of a $35bn (€25bn) aid package he says his nation’s teetering economy needs to stay afloat over the coming two years after being mismanaged by Yanukovych – now living in self-imposed exile in Russia.
The White House said Obama would discuss an economic support package that has already seen Washington pledge more than $1bn and the European Union €11bn over two years.