President Obama meets with Ukraine president-elect Petro Poroshenko Wednesday in Warsaw, Poland. President Barack Obama says Ukraine can be a vibrant, thriving democracy if the United States and the international community stand behind it. (Mykola Lazarenko / AP)
WARSAW, POLAND — President Barack Obama held up 25 years of Polish democracy as a beacon for neighboring Ukraine in a public celebration Wednesday, warning Russia that the free world is united against its “dark tactics” to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“We stand together because we believe that people and nations have the right to determine their own destiny — that includes the people of Ukraine,” Obama said before a crowd of more than 6,000 that spilled into the streets before Royal Castle, a symbol of Polish independence.
“Our free nations will stand united so that further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia,” Obama said. “Because after investing so much blood and treasure to bring Europe together, we refuse to allow the dark tactics of the 20th century to define the 21st.”
Obama spoke just after announcing new U.S. assistance for Ukraine’s armed forces, including body armor and night vision goggles — the first such delivery of tools that would directly help Ukrainian troops in their battle against pro-Russian separatists.
Speaking from behind protective glass, Obama declared that “the days of empires and spheres of influence are over.” He cast the people of Ukraine as heirs to the push for democracy in Poland that helped bring an end to communism in Europe.
“Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small, or impose their will at the barrel of a gun or with masked men taking over buildings,” Obama said. “And the stroke of a pen can never legitimize the theft of a neighbor’s land. So we will never accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Holding his first extended meeting earlier Wednesday with Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko, Obama praised the billionaire candy maker as a “wise selection.” He said he was impressed by Poroshenko’s business expertise and confident he can handle Ukraine’s formidable economic and political challenges as he takes office on Saturday.
Obama offered Poroshenko $5 million in new U.S. aid as Ukraine’s military continues to suffer casualties in its confrontation with pro-Russian insurgents in the country’s east. More significant than the dollar amount was the nature of the new aid. Until now, the U.S. had only provided other nonlethal forms of aid like clothes, food and radios.
Obama told reporters allowed into the end of their meeting at a Marriott hotel that the international community must stand with Poroshenko to make sure that Russia is no longer supporting separatists. Poroshenko thanked the U.S. for its support and said the next phase is crucial to starting a peaceful process out of Ukraine’s political crisis.
Obama’s meeting with Poroshenko came 10 days after he became Ukraine’s first elected leader since its pro-Russian president fled and Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula, in the confrontation that’s reignited old global divisions.
World leaders excluded Putin from a Group of 7 meeting starting Wednesday night in Brussels that was originally slated to include Putin and take place in Sochi, Russia. But in recent days, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany have scheduled face-to-face talks with the Russian leader, exposing divisions among Western nations that had united to isolate Russia over its aggressive moves against Ukraine.
Obama and Putin have spoken by phone multiple times — but not in person — since Russia annexed Crimea and stationed tens of thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine. Obama said Tuesday he maintains a “businesslike relationship” with Putin and is certain to encounter him in France on Friday during events to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. But they have no formal talks scheduled.
Obama announced upon his arrival in Poland on Tuesday that he’s asking Congress for up to $1 billion to increase the U.S. military presence in Europe in the face of Russia’s aggression. He reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Poland’s security under the NATO alliance — a message he repeated to the Polish people and that U.S. leaders have echoed across the region.
“These are not just words,” Obama said. “They are unbreakable commitments backed by the strongest alliance in the world and by the armed forces of the United States of America: the most powerful military in history.”