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Obama promises unwavering support for Ukraine on anniversary of democracy in Poland

June 4, 2014 at 8:35 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama was in Warsaw today, where he observed the anniversary of Polish democracy, and met with Ukraine’s president-elect, Petro Poroshenko. The events came as one NATO ally member is about to complete a military deal with Russia, causing many to wonder how close the U.S. and its European allies are in their approach to dealing with that country’s actions in recent months.

The president pledged unwavering support for Ukraine and its incoming leader, as they battle an economic slide and a pro-Russian insurgency.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We had the opportunity to discuss president-elect Poroshenko’s plans for bringing peace and order to the east that is still experiencing conflict.

We discussed his economic plans and the importance of rooting out corruption, increasing transparency and creating new models of economic growth.

GWEN IFILL: Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate-maker, will take office this weekend. But it was President Obama who brought the sweeteners today: loan guarantees and $5 million in additional nonlethal military aid, plus training for troops and police.

For his part, Poroshenko talked of peace, not war.

PRESIDENT-ELECT PETRO POROSHENKO, Ukraine: From the very beginning, from the very first day of inauguration, we are ready to present the plan for peaceful regulation with situation in the east, and we think that the next several days will be very important, crucial for the Ukrainian history and for the Ukrainian perspective.

GWEN IFILL: Poroshenko later said his plan would include granting amnesty for some fighters and decentralizing power, a key demand of many in the east.

As he spoke, heavy fighting continued in his homeland. Government forces near Slavyansk claimed 300 separatists were killed over the last two days. And rebels captured three government bases around Luhansk. Officials said six of the insurgents and three Ukrainian soldiers died in that fighting.

Back in Warsaw, President Obama cited Poland as an example for Ukraine. He addressed thousands of Poles marking the 25th anniversary of their first free elections, even as the Iron Curtain was crumbling. The president also said NATO countries must reaffirm commitment to a common defense, as Russia flexes its muscles anew.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The days of empire and spheres of influence are over. 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, and the stroke of a pen can never legitimize the theft of a neighbor’s land.

GWEN IFILL: In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reinforced that message with an additional, specific warning for Russia.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, German (through interpreter): With Russia not securing its borders enough, large numbers of fighters and ammunition are reaching the southeast of Ukraine, which further contributes to the destabilization of its neighbor. If this doesn’t happen, we won’t shrink from imposing further sanctions.

GWEN IFILL: But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov answered in Moscow, and he had a decidedly different take.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): The Western partners have promoted their own agenda, ignoring the interests of Russia, expanding NATO and seeking to move a geopolitical area under their control right to the Russian border.

GWEN IFILL: In fact, it’s unclear just how much NATO will do. France says it will fulfill a multibillion-dollar contract with Russia to supply it with amphibious carrier ships.

And while more U.S. troops have deployed to Poland, Slovakia joined the Czech Republic today in ruling out any NATO units on its soil. Both are members of the alliance, but retain close ties to Russia.

President Obama has moved on to Brussels and a meeting of the G7 nations, what used to be the G8, until Russia was suspended over its invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea.