By Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Nick Paton Walsh
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine (CNN) — Western countries are warning Russia that it faces costs unless it changes course in Crimea, with U.S. President Barack Obama pledging to “stand with Ukraine” as he met with the country’s new Prime Minister in Washington.
“We will never surrender,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk vowed Wednesday as he and Obama met in a White House show of support for Kiev’s new embattled leader.
“We fight for our sovereignty,” said Yatsenyuk, who took over after the ouster of former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. Later he added he wanted to be clear that Ukraine “is and will be a part of the Western world” but still a “good friend and partner of Russia.”
On Thursday, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said it had postponed activities related to Russia’s process for membership in the organization for now.
In a boost to Kiev, members also “agreed that the OECD should respond positively to Ukraine’s request to further strengthen existing OECD-Ukraine cooperation to take advantage of the OECD’s expertise to address the public policy challenges it faces,” it said in a statement.
Ukraine’s new leaders are seeking support from Western countries as pro-Russians tighten their grip in Crimea ahead of a secession referendum scheduled for Sunday.
“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 … will be forced to apply a cost to Russia’s violations of international law,” Obama told reporters. “There is another path available, and we hope that (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin is willing seize that path.”
In a speech to parliament, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Sunday’s referendum in Crimea, on whether the Black Sea peninsula should become part of Russia, was unconstitutional and that Russia’s presence in Crimea violates Ukraine’s territorial integrity. She said Moscow was taking advantage of Ukraine’s weakness and that this is the way warfare happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, “which we thought we had overcome.”
Yatsenyuk heads to New York on Thursday to address the United Nations Security Council.
Well-armed men have effectively isolated the Crimean peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority, from the rest of Ukraine. Tensions flared Wednesday at a Ukrainian military base in Novoozernoye, in western Crimea. A CNN team saw Ukrainian forces load and cock their weapons as what appeared to be Russian soldiers moved in on the base and placed a heavy machine gun at the gates. The Russian troops pulled back.
Separately, Crimean authorities have secured offshore Ukrainian oil and gas projects in the Black and Azov seas, as well as the Chernomorneftegaz company’s oil and gas fields, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported Thursday, citing Crimean parliamentary speaker Vladimir Konstantinov.
“These deposits and the platform fully become the property of the Republic of Crimea. We have guarded them. These are our fields and we will fight for them,” he was quoted as saying.
A decision on the future of Ukraine’s Chernomorneftegaz ahead of Sunday’s referendum has not been made, Russia’s state-run Interfax news agency reported, citing comments by Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliev. He said consultations would take place on whether “this enterprise will remain the property of the Republic of Crimea or will become part of Gazprom, a powerful holding,” referring to the Russian energy giant.
The comments came as breakneck preparations are under way for the referendum — to be held largely in secret — as tensions persist around Simferopol, Crimea’s capital.
Flights to Crimea from Kiev, Istanbul and several other cities have been suspended for the rest of the week, with only those originating from Moscow landing.
Crimeans will be able to choose between two alternatives when they vote: Do you support reuniting Crimea with Russia, as a subject of the Russian Federation? Or, do you support the restoration of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?
According to the 1992 Constitution, Crimea is really an independent state, making the choice in effect between joining Russia and independence.
The Crimean Electoral Commission was delivering referendum ballots to regional administrative buildings, according to the body’s head, Michail Malishev.
Servicemen from Ukraine’s armed forces deployed in Crimea are free to leave military bases to vote Sunday, Interfax cited Yury Zherebtsov, the Crimean government’s official in charge of the ballot, as saying.
Zherebtsov said officials had visited military bases across Crimea to convince soldiers that “they have simply become hostage of the Ukrainian government” and that they understand “the only way to maintain the peace and unity of the Crimean people is by forming a union with Russia.”
The new pro-Russian government on the southeastern peninsula has said that if the voters opt to join Russia, the first step will be to declare Crimea an independent and sovereign state. Then it will apply to join the Russian Federation.
Crimea’s representatives have already approached Moscow with their idea. Russian leaders have greeted them with open arms.
Russian-speaking troops without identifying insignia have Crimea firmly under their control. Many believe they belong at least in part to Russia’s military, an assertion Moscow has repeatedly denied. Russia says they are local “self-defense” forces.
There has been an international outcry over Crimea’s push for separation and warnings the referendum won’t be recognized in Kiev or elsewhere.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he would meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in London Friday.
And in a phone call, French President Francois Hollande told Putin the referendum planned in Crimea “has no legal basis.” He urged Putin to “do everything to prevent the annexation of Crimea to Russia,” saying that such a move would be unacceptable to the international community.
In a different tone, a Kremlin statement said Putin and Hollande had agreed to continue discussions, and France’s foreign and defense ministers would travel to Moscow next week.
The G7 — the world’s leading industrial powers without Russia — and leaders of the European Council and Commission issued a strongly worded statement calling on Russia to “cease all efforts to change the status of Crimea contrary to Ukrainian law and in violation of international law.”
They urged Russia to immediately halt actions supporting the referendum.
U.S. military presence
CNN has learned the Obama administration is expected to announce Thursday a Pentagon plan to keep the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush in the Mediterranean Sea longer than planned to help reassure NATO allies after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
One official said U.S. military assets in the region are being reviewed for “what stays, what goes, what gets moved around.” Although the U.S. effort with Russia focuses on diplomatic initiatives, the military part of the equation was discussed in depth at a White House meeting Tuesday, the military official confirmed.
Asked about the decision to keep the aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, a senior administration official said not to expect much more muscle-flexing, or additional military steps, between now and Sunday’s referendum in Crimea.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a package of loans and aid for Ukraine on Wednesday, along with sanctions against Russia for its military intervention. The measure, which now heads to the full Senate, also includes the approval of long-delayed reforms at the International Monetary Fund.
The aid package includes $1 billion in loan guarantees from the United States as well as $50 million to boost democracy-building in Ukraine and $100 million for enhanced security cooperation for Ukraine and some of its neighbors.
Crimea, with a population of just over 2 million people, has stepped into the world stage spotlight.
Moscow has denounced the events that led to Yanukovych’s ouster as an illegitimate coup and has refused to recognize the new Ukrainian authorities.
Yanukovych, currently in Russia, insists he is still the legitimate leader of Ukraine and has vowed to return to Kiev “as soon as the circumstances allow.”
He fled Kiev on February 22 after three months of protests against his decision to scrap a trade deal with the European Union and embrace closer ties with Russia.
Putin has said his government has the right to protect ethnic Russians living there.
CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh reported from Simferopol, as did journalist Nadjie Femi. CNN’s Anna Coren in Simferopol, Alla Eshchenko and Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, Tim Schwarz in Kiev, and Clare Sebastian, Kevin Liptak, Carol Jordan, Damien Ward, Shirley Henry, Harrie Reekie, Richard Roth, Stephanie Halasz, Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Matt Smith contributed to this report.
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