U.S. President Barack Obama endorsed Ukraine's President-elect Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday, offering Kiev financial and security help and saying Poroshenko was the right choice to lead the country locked in a standoff with Moscow.
At their first meeting since the billionaire confectionery magnate was elected last month against a backdrop of armed clashes in Ukraine's east, Obama said he was “deeply impressed” by Poroshenko's vision for pulling his nation out of crisis.
"What Ukrainians said in the elections is that they reject that path. They reject violence" and want the opportunity to determine their own future, Obama told reporters after meeting Poroshenko in Poland’s capital, Warsaw, where Obama has been on a two-day visit.
"That's the hope that President Poroshenko represents," Obama said. "In my discussions with him today it's clear he understands the hopes and aspirations of the Ukrainian people."
He said they had discussed Poroshenko's plans for restoring peace and order in Ukraine and reducing its dependence on Russia for energy.
In a speech later Wednesday, Obama also reaffirmed his commitment to seeking congressional support for up to $1 billion for a "European Reassurance Initiative" that would boost the American military presence on the continent. Obama has sought to reassure Poland and other NATO allies in the wake of perceived Russian aggression in Ukraine.
"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," he said.
Speaking after his meeting with Obama, Poroshenko said he was ready to present a plan for "the peaceful resolution of the situation in the east" very soon after his inauguration on Saturday. He gave no details, but he has backed the ongoing military crackdown on the rebels, which Kiev calls a "counter-terror operation."
Known to some Ukrainians as the "chocolate king," Poroshenko won a May 25 presidential election called after the previous, Kremlin-backed head of state, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia in February after an uprising against his rule.
Russia seized control of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, home to Moscow's Black Sea Fleet, and annexed it in March, sparking the most severe East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Poroshenko takes over a country that is deeply troubled. Armed pro-Russian rebels are battling security forces in the east of the country, Russia is threatening to switch off Ukraine's gas supplies for nonpayment of debts, and Kiev must conduct painful economic reforms as a condition for Western aid.
Poroshenko’s meeting with Obama in Warsaw came just hours after pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine’s east seized two government bases near the city of Luhansk.
Ukrainian officials said in a statement that six rebels were killed and three Ukrainian servicemen injured in 10 hours of fighting overnight at a National Guard base.
Following a two-day-long siege, rebels also seized a border guard base on the outskirts of Luhansk, where an Associated Press reporter saw rebels carrying crates of ammunition and explosives out of the base on Wednesday and driving away in border guards' cars.
There was no immediate report of casualties in the fighting at the border guard base.
In response to the attacks, Ukraine has ramped up its assault against rebel groups, whom Poroshenko has accused of being “terrorists.”
Ukrainian troops on Tuesday launched an offensive against rebels in the eastern city of Slovyansk, where two government soldiers were killed and 42 injured in daylong fighting. Vladislav Seleznyov, press secretary for Ukraine's operation against the rebels in the east, told Ukrainian news agencies that the battle had left 300 rebels dead. However, that figure has not yet been confirmed.
In Kiev, interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, who will hand over power to Poroshenko on Saturday, has asked the country's Security and Defense Council to consider imposing martial law in parts of eastern Ukraine in a bid to stabilize the situation.