Obama Rolls Out White House Welcome Mat For Ukrainian Prime Minister

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is visiting the White House Wednesday. The meeting comes days before a vote in Crimea over whether to secede from Ukraine.

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We begin the hour with today's diplomatic action over the tensions in Ukraine. Much of it took place here in Washington, D.C. In a snub to Russia and a show of support for Ukraine's fledgling government, President Obama met with the new Ukrainian prime minister. We're going to hear about that meeting and hear reaction to the crisis from a key U.S. senator. We begin with NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: President Obama sat next to the Ukrainian prime minister in the Oval Office this afternoon and told him what he had come to the United States to hear.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I would ask that you deliver a message on behalf of the American people to all the Ukrainian people, and that is that we admire their courage. We appreciate their aspirations. The interests of the United States are solely in making sure that the people of Ukraine are able to determine their own destiny.

LIASSON: That will be difficult as long as Russian troops are on Ukrainian soil. And to that, Mr. Obama had another message for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

OBAMA: We will continue to say to the Russian government that if it 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 violations of international law.

LIASSON: Prime Minister Yatsenyuk told reporters his government was willing to negotiate with Russia, but Russia had to back off.

PRIME MINISTER ARSENIY YATSENYUK: We urge Russia to stick to its international commitments and obligations and to stop this unacceptable military intervention into the sovereign and independent state.

LIASSON: Asked whether he thought it was possible to get the Russians out of Ukraine, Yatsenyuk said that depends on Putin.

YATSENYUK: If he wants to have the stability, peace and prosperity in Europe, he needs to pull back and to start real talks. So my message to President Putin, Mr. Putin, tear down this wall, the wall of war, intimidation and military aggression.

LIASSON: There's very little the West can do to dislodge the Russians. But in a last-ditch diplomatic effort, the administration is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to London on Friday to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Kerry told a House committee today that he was still hopeful the Russian-backed referendum on Crimean cessation could be stopped before Sunday. But he warned of sanctions and other punitive actions if Russia did not pull out.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: It can get ugly fast if the wrong choices are made. And it can get ugly in multiple directions. Our hope is that indeed there is a way to have a reasonable outcome here.

LIASSON: The U.S. is planning to shore up Ukraine's tottering economy with a $1 billion loan guarantee. Congress is also considering an array of tough sanctions, including a call for Russia to be booted out of the G8 group of industrialized counties. Today, that body released a statement under its former name, the Group of Seven, calling the Crimea referendum illegitimate. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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