Obama rejects "slapdash" referendum in meeting with Ukrainian leader

There was a warm reception for Ukraine's interim Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Wednesday afternoon as he got a rare audience with President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry at the White House.

Yatsenyuk's visit comes as movement in Ukraine is at a standstill pending the outcome of a referendum on the independence of the Crimean Peninsula scheduled for Sunday. The U.S. and Europe have declared the referendum illegitimate since any change in Ukraine's territorial boundaries must be approved by the entire nation. Mr. Obama said Wednesday that the U.S. would not recognize the "slapdash" referendum.

But he praised the interim Ukrainian government for acting responsibly to fill a void, create an inclusive process for all parties and work for economic stability. And he warned that if Russia did not chance course, the international community would be forced to "apply a cost" to those actions.

"There's another path available and we hope President Putin is willing to seize that path," Mr. Obama said, "but if he does not, I'm very confident that the international community will stand firmly behind the Ukrainian government."

Yatsenyuk said that Ukraine was chiefly concerned with it's freedom.

"We fight for our freedom, we fight for our independence, we fight for our sovereignty and we will never surrender," he said. "Ukraine is and will be a part of the western world."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Yatsenyuk urged Putin to "tear down this wall, the wall of war and intimidation and military aggression."

"Let's talk. Let's calm down," he said

Kerry announced Wednesday morning he will be in London Friday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at Mr. Obama's request. So far, Russia has resisted U.S. suggestions for resolving the crisis in Ukraine because they view the interim government and the ouster of pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych as illegitimate.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., will lead a delegation of lawmakers to Ukraine this weekend including Sens. John Barasso, R-Wyo., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., John Hoeven, R-N.D., Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

During Yatsenyuk's meeting at the White House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debated and approved a bill from the committee's chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to provide a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine and also levy sanctions against Ukrainians and Russians found to be responsible for violence and human rights abuses against those who protested the Yanukovych government.

"Putin has miscalculated by starting a game of Russian roulette with the international community, but we refuse to blink, and we will never accept this violation of international law," Menendez wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post published Wednesday.

The bill also includes reforms to the U.S. participation in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that would double the organization's resources and give greater power to emerging markets. The White House has pushed hard for the reforms, since they cannot pass without U.S. approval, but Congress is not so eager.

"This IMF money isn't necessary for dealing with this Ukraine crisis that you see today. I think what the Senate ought to do is ought to take up the house passed loan guarantee package and they could move it today," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Wednesday. Last week, the House approved $1 billion in existing funds to act as loan guarantees for Ukraine by a vote of 385 to 23 and passed a nonbinding resolution this week that condemns Russia's actions in the Crimean Peninsula.

Despite the overwhelming vote in favor of loan guarantees the House, it does have its opponents in the Senate. At the hearing Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said, "Are you sending a signal to punish Russia or are you sending a gift to pay off Russian creditors?"

Paul and other Republicans also oppose the IMF reforms, saying they could enhace the power of Russia's vote.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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