Biden echoes calls for Ukraine to complete a complex political transition

KIEV, Ukraine — In what’s become an increasingly familiar refrain, Vice President Joe Biden forcefully urged Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to speed up reforms, free political prisoners and improve security at the country’s heavily fortified border with Russia.

“The United States remains fully committed to a democratic Ukraine,” Biden said at a joint news conference here after meeting with Poroshenko and visiting top Ukrainian officials. He later added, “We cannot stand back.”

But just as he stood to speak, Biden was swarmed by crowd-control officers for the fourth time in six months, when they pushed a handful of demonstrators to the floor. This time, however, the crowd of about 150 protesters, made up of students, pensioners and students, defied the gauntlet by crossing a main boulevard and chanting, “Biden, get out!” They were whisked away in vans.

Biden was clear: Ukraine is facing a struggle with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, who he said “declared war on Europe.” And he warned Russia that if Kiev were to back down, Russia would “finish” Ukraine.

“Mr. Putin, stop doing what you’re doing,” Biden said. “You will not change the outcome of this game.”

But Biden’s comments were both broader and subtler than the impassioned denunciations he has unleashed against Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the last year. He focused on growing fears of weapons supplies flowing into rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine.

Before leaving Kiev, Biden declared that the United States was “absolutely” weighing the possibility of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine. Such a move, he said, would “send a clear message to the separatists: This is no longer a game. We’re prepared to put into action all the options available, but they’ll be mindful of the people they have murdered and wounded.”

The protest, a throwback to the often-violent street demonstrations that preceded Ukraine’s fall to pro-Russian separatists, had provoked a strong response from the pro-Russia separatists, who threatened violence against the reporters who dared attend.

A spokesman for the group, Vitaliy Naida, said via Facebook, “Biden is provoking a war with us.” Earlier, he wrote, “A strike on the White House would be appropriate. Biden should show up at the morgue.”

Biden said NATO allies were prepared to deploy helicopters and fighter jets over the eastern border with Ukraine. He underscored the need for “a vigorous economic program,” declared that the United States would “stand by Ukraine with substantial assistance, including economic help, defensive weapons, cash assistance and private investment,” and praised the decision by Ukraine’s central bank to raise interest rates to 5.5 percent.

“By acting with abandon, Poroshenko is engaging in a dramatic change,” Biden said.

The vice president, who promised Ukrainian leaders the “full spectrum” of U.S. support, said he had told Poroshenko that the United States would continue to consider supplying the rebels with military aid.

Many Ukrainians continue to be worried that pro-Russian separatists might overrun large swaths of eastern Ukraine, supported by air power, heavy artillery and perhaps even nuclear weapons from Russia.

Biden met with Poroshenko after traveling to Kiev with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.).

Biden landed at Kiev’s Dnipropetrovsk airport shortly after 10 a.m. and was met at the airport by high-ranking Ukrainian officials, who walked with him past a ground zero of what Ukrainians see as their fight with Russia.

Biden and Durbin visited a shelter for refugees from fighting in the eastern Donetsk region, the heart of the insurgency, where about 45,000 people are estimated to have fled over the past few months.

McCain told reporters that he supported “whatever President Obama does at the cost of his own credibility with the Russian president.”

The state department announced that it had released $1 million to Ukraine as it tries to help these people rebuild their lives. Other U.S. and European diplomats also met with Poroshenko in the capital, following an earlier meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Also in Kiev, Clinton, Kerry and Obama dispatched a trio of senior officials to Kiev for more discussions on Ukraine, including Clinton, Kerry and Obama’s foreign policy adviser, Ben Rhodes.

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