Following their face-to-face meeting, Obama observed that "The most pressing challenge that Ukraine faces at the moment ... is the threat to its territorial integrity and its sovereignty."
The White House and international community have lambasted Russia for its incursion into Ukraine's Crimea region as a violation of international law, international treaties, and Ukraine's sovereign territorial integrity. With regard to Russia's interest in Ukraine's mostly pro-Russian Crimea region, Obama said that "they cannot have a country outside of Ukraine dictate to them how they should arrange their affairs."
A controversial referendum put forth by the Crimean Parliament and scheduled for March 16 is intended to determine whether Crimea remains part of Ukraine or secedes to join Russia. Both the U.S. and Ukraine refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, which Ukraine's justice minister deemed "illegal" under Ukraine's constitution.
The status of Crimea, Obama pointedly noted, "is not something that can be done with the barrel of a gun pointed at you."
Obama repeated his message that the U.S. continues to diplomatically engage Russia to encourage de-escalation, but "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 and its encroachments on Ukraine."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk conveyed Ukraine's determination to "do everything in order to preserve peace, stability, and independence of my country." Of the challenges facing Ukraine currently, Yatsenyuk pointed to the Russian military as "a key challenge." Russia, he said, must adhere to its international obligations, order its troops back to their barracks, and engage diplomatically -- "with no guns, with no military, with no tanks, but the diplomacy and political tools."
Ukraine, the prime minister emphasized, is "absolutely ready and open for talks with the Russian Federation."
Soon, Ukraine will sign an association agreement with the European Union -- a milestone for a country that altered its future with EuroMaidan protests launched in November 2013 after then-President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of an association with the EU. Yanukovych's decision not to join the EU was regarded as an attempt to move economically-struggling Ukraine closer to Russia and away from the western economy.
Yatsenyuk announced that Ukraine's association agreement with the EU is also intended to send a message: "we want to be very clear that Ukraine is and will be a part of the Western world, and our Russian partners have to realize that we are ready to make a new type or to craft a new type of our relationship where Ukraine is a part of the European Union, but Ukraine is a good friend and partner of Russia."
The nature of Ukraine's relationship with Russia, Yatsenyuk clarified, will be dependent upon "whether Russia wants to have this talk and whether Russia wants to have Ukraine as a partner or as a subordinate."
In concluding his message in the Oval Office, the new Ukrainian prime minister declared: "we will never surrender and we will do everything in order to preserve peace, stability, and independence of my country. And we appreciate your personal support, the support of your government, support of the American people to the Ukrainian people."