Obama allows referendum on splitting Ukraine

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The White House today tacitly accepted a Russian-imposed split of Ukraine, by endorsing a proposed referendum that gives greater autonomy of Russian-majority regions within the country.

“The Ukrainian government for some time now has said it is interested in having a discussion about greater autonomy for [Russian-language] regions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said today.

The Ukraine government has “demonstrated professionalism and restraint, and is interested in resolving this crisis in a way that is most beneficial to the Ukrainian people and the nation of Ukraine,” he said.

Ukraine’s parliament — which would have to approve the regional referendum — is acting “in a fair and diplomatic way,” Carney added.

The offer of a draft referendum by the country’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was made after Russian-backed groups grabbed control of government buildings in the Russian-majority regions of eastern Ukraine.

The draft referendum would provide a legal foundation for the Russian-language regions in Ukraine to establish close economic and legal ties to the Russian government in Moscow, at the cost of the Ukrainian government’s role. The Russian government has already endorsed the proposal.

The proposed legal changes would be debated and decided during national elections slated for May 25.

The plan would also give Russia more influence over the Ukrainian-language central and eastern regions of Ukraine, which stretches from the Polish border all the way into all to the steppe lands south of Moscow.

Obama is also expected to talk today to Russian president Vladimir Putin. “If and when that happens, we’ll have a readout,” Carney told reporters at the midday press conference.

Obama may also address the issue publicly in the next few days, Carney said.

The White House’ endorsement of the autonomy plan is a match for the President Barack Obama’s effort to distance himself from the slow-motion invasion, which was launched by Russia in February when it captured the Crimea with very little violence.

To placate Democratic and Republican foreign-policy activists and media outlets, Obama has taken a tough tone towards Russia’s expansion. But he’s done little to pressure Russia, and has tried to minimize the chance of a shooting war.

For example, Obama has declined to provide military aid to Ukraine, and Carney has suggested that critics of the White House’s policy are pushing for war with Russia.

“We do not see a military solution to this crisis [and] we’re not actively considering lethal aid,” Carney said today.

Obama has also minimized his own public role in the effort to deliver international financial aid to Ukraine, and has said little about the conflict since his trip to Europe in March. In March, he had Vice President Joe Biden meet with the Ukraine’s new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Also, Obama imposed only minor sanctions on a few Russian leaders after Putin’s takeover of the Russian-language Crimean peninsula.

Obama has supported the despatch of international observers to Ukraine. Biden is slated to visit Ukraine April 22.

Carney rejected charges today that Obama has been passive in the face of Russian expansion. “We have been very forcefully making clear there will be costs,” such as sanctions, he insisted.

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