The meeting on Wednesday between Obama and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk comes as a pro-Russian area of Ukraine readies for a referendum on 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.
US and Europe have declared the referendum illegitimate, saying Ukraine's Central Government must be involved in decisions about its territory. The dispute over the future of the former Soviet republic has conjured up echoes of the Cold War tensions between East and West.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Yatsenyuk's visit was meant to signal "that we strongly support Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government."
Amid the symbolism of Yatsenyuk's visit to US, 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 US 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.
Russia does not recognize the new government nor the elections planned in Ukraine in May.
A possible path for de-escalating the dispute emerged Tuesday, when Crimea's parliament said that if the public votes to become part of Russia, the peninsula will declare itself independent and propose becoming a Russian state. That could give Moscow the option of saying there is no need for Crimea to become part of Russia while keeping it firmly within its sphere of influence.
Yatsenyuk will be greeted at the White House today by all of the grandeur of a head of state visit, including an Oval Office meeting with Obama.


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