WASHINGTON (AP) — In a diplomatic dig at Russia, President Barack Obama is hosting the new Ukrainian prime minister at the White House, a high-profile gesture aimed at cementing the West's allegiance to Ukraine's fledgling government.
The meeting Wednesday between Obama and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes as a pro-Russian area of Ukraine readies for a referendum Sunday to determine its future. Voters in the Crimean Peninsula will be given two options: becoming part of Russia, or remaining in Ukraine with broader powers.
Ahead of the meeting, the U.S. and the other nations in the Group of Seven released a joint statement declaring that they would not recognize the results of the referendum.
"We call on the Russian Federation to immediately halt actions supporting a referendum on the territory of Crimea regarding its status, in direct violation of the constitution of Ukraine," the statement read. "Any such referendum would have no legal effect."
The dispute over the future of the former Soviet republic has conjured up echoes of the Cold War tensions between East and West.
Amid the symbolism of Yatsenyuk's visit to the U.S., the Ukrainian leader will also be seeking financial assistance from Washington. Yatsenyuk says his country needs the West's help to defend itself against neighboring Russia, a nation he said is "armed to the teeth."
Ukraine's parliament installed Yatsenyuk as head of the country's interim government after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital of Kiev following three months of popular protests. The uprising started when Yanukovych rejected a planned partnership agreement with the European Union in favor of historical ties with Moscow.
Days after Yanukovych left Kiev, Russia moved military forces into Crimea, defying warnings from the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far brushed aside punishments levied by the West following the incursion, including visa bans, the threat of economic sanctions and a halt to planning for an international economic summit Russia is scheduled to host in June.