President Barack Obama met Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko for the first time as the leaders seek ways to defuse a pro-Russian uprising that’s claimed almost 200 lives in the former Soviet republic.
Poroshenko told reporters he’s committed to a “peaceful” process, while Obama pledged to step up non-lethal military support to Ukraine. The leaders held talks today in Warsaw, Poland, Ukraine’s western neighbor and a leading critic among European Union and NATO members of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, which the U.S. and the EU consider illegal.
“The United States is absolutely committed to standing behind the Ukrainian people and their aspirations,” said Obama, who yesterday warned Russia against further “provocation.” Obama said he’s been “deeply impressed” by Poroshenko’s vision and experience as a businessman.
Ukraine’s U.S.- and EU-backed government said yesterday it’s deploying heavy weaponry and armored vehicles to strengthen its border with Russia and halt an influx of fighters after clashes killed another dozen people. Government troops are closing the border in the easternmost Luhansk region and have driven the main insurgent groups out of the northern part of neighboring Donetsk, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said.
Ukraine’s hryvnia, this year’s worst-performing currency against the dollar with a 31 percent drop, was 0.2 percent stronger at 12:01 p.m. in Kiev, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Rebels attacked a National Guard unit in Luhansk overnight, with fighting that involved machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers lasting 10 hours, the National Guard said today on its website. Six militants were killed, it said.
Insurgents killed two soldiers, wounded at least 42 more and shot down two helicopters in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern regions yesterday, Vladyslav Seleznyov, a government spokesman, said by phone.
“A large number of terrorists” were “liquidated” in Luhansk, Turchynov told lawmakers in Kiev. He ordered the government to study the option of imposing martial law in Donetsk and Luhansk.
At least 181 people have been killed since unrest broke out in eastern Ukraine, Prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky said in Kiev. The death toll is comprised of 59 soldiers, including a general whose helicopter was shot down by militants on May 29. Another 293 people have been wounded and 220 kidnapped, he said.
The bloodshed underscores the tension with Russia as Obama began visits to European nations. The U.S. and the EU say Russia is behind the unrest, a charge President Vladimir Putin denies.
Obama says Putin needs to use his influence with the rebels to convince them to stop attacking Ukrainian forces, free seized buildings and lay down arms. The leaders will cross paths this week in Paris and during 70th-anniversary commemorations of the allied landings in northern France during World War II.
Obama said today that the U.S. would allocate additional funds for body armor, night-vision goggles and communications equipment for Ukrainian forces, having provided them in March with about 300,000 ready-to-eat meals.
He announced yesterday a $1 billion fund to bolster military training and assistance for NATO allies near Russia. The U.S. will position more equipment in Europe and strengthen partnerships with allies such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia that aren’t part of the alliance, he said.
NATO defense ministers are discussing Ukraine during two days of talks in Brussels that started yesterday.
“There are still tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukrainian borders and that massive troop presence is not justified,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters before the meeting. He called on Russia to “de-escalate the situation, first and foremost by a full withdrawal.”
Putin said during a meeting yesterday with his human-rights ombudsman, Ella Pamfilova, that he supports the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to allow Russian aid to reach people in Ukraine affected by the fighting.
Obama’s trip offers a series of venues for possible talks on the Ukrainian conflict. He’ll meet other Group of Seven leaders in Brussels starting today, though they won’t decide on further steps to sanction Russia during the talks, according to a German official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. president will also attend a dinner with Francois Hollande June 5, the same day the French president hosts Putin, before they travel on to the D-Day commemorations in Normandy on June 6. Vice President Joe Biden is due to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration in Kiev on June 7, according to the White House.
(An earlier version of this story was corrected because of a spelling mistake in the U.S. president’s name.)