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Ukraine's Poroshenko Hails Domestic Reforms As He Pushes Trump For Support


WASHINGTON -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has extolled his country's commitment to democracy and ongoing reforms as he pushed U.S. President Donald Trump for support in a meeting hailed by Kyiv but downplayed by the U.S. administration.

Poroshenko's first meeting with Trump came before Trump's expected first encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit in Germany next month -- a feat celebrated in Ukraine, which is fighting Russia-backed separatists in its east.

But the low-key nature of the meetings in the U.S. capital on June 20 signaled that the White House was wary of angering the Kremlin.

"That's a great honor and a great pleasure to be to be together with you, dear Mr. President, one of the most reliable supporter and strategic partner for Ukraine," Poroshenko told Trump in the Oval Office.

"We are really fighting to bring freedom and democracy. And with a very strong support in the security and defense sector, support of our reforms, support of my 45 million nation, of the country who is the biggest in the European continent, and I am absolutely confident that Ukraine is a story of success," he said. "And I am proud to have you, Mr. President, and the United States as a co-sponsor of this story of success."

Trump, in his brief remarks before reporters, praised the tenor of their talks.

"We've had some very, very good discussions. It's going to continue throughout the day and I think a lot of progress has been made. It's a great honor to have you, Mr. President," he said.

A brief White House statement released after the meeting said the two discussed "support for the peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and President Poroshenko's reform agenda and anticorruption efforts."

On the eve of the White House visit, Poroshenko specifically pointed to the fact that he had met the U.S. leader before Putin did, calling it "very important."

The White House, however, described the events ahead of time more modestly, saying Trump would be meeting with his national security adviser "with a drop-in by Vice President Mike Pence and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine."

Poroshenko did get a boost from the U.S. Treasury Department, which announced new sanctions against dozens of separatist fighters, leaders, and their allies, who have been fighting Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbas region for more than three years.

Prominent on the list of those targeted was a Russian named Dmitry Utkin, who is believed to be the head of an unregistered, private military-contracting agency that has recruited soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Also included was a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a St. Petersburg businessman who has provided catering to the Kremlin. He was targeted by the Treasury Department last year.

Among the subjects Poroshenko was expected to raise with U.S. officials was the need to maintain the U.S. economic sanctions imposed on top Russian government officials after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Trump, and some close allies, have suggested sanctions could be eased as part of a larger deal with Moscow. Asked by reporters about that after the meeting with Poroshenko, White House spokesman Sean Spicer appeared to endorse the existing sanctions.

"I mean obviously that's part of the reason there are sanctions is because until...[the Russians] are out of eastern Ukraine we are going to continue to have sanctions on Russia and we believe that is part of Ukraine and so therefore until those...those sanctions will remain," Spicer said. "It was something that obviously came up in discussions with the [Ukrainian] president today. We will continue to advocate for them."

Poroshenko was also expected to hold talks with officials from the U.S. State, Defense, Commerce, and Energy departments.

The Ukrainian leader has been angling for a meeting with Trump since before Trump took office in January.

Polls have shown Poroshenko's popularity falling dramatically since he was elected in 2014, with many Ukrainians skeptical of his ability to combat Russian aggression and bring an end to the war. Many Ukrainians are disillusioned with unfulfilled promises to root out the country's notoriously entrenched corruption.

Securing any meeting at all would have played well with many Ukrainians, but a direct meeting with Trump, before Putin had the chance to meet with Trump, may help shore up some support from outside his core supporters.

During his visit, Poroshenko hailed the U.S. Senate's recent decision to introduce new sanctions against Russia, saying that measures were a civilized mechanism "to force the aggressor to get away from Ukraine" and withdraw troops and equipment.

The U.S. Senate last week voted overwhelmingly for the sanctions aimed at punishing Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and to force Trump to get Congress's approval before easing any existing sanctions.

The sanctions legislation still must be approved by the House of Representatives. A vote is not yet scheduled.

Poroshenko's visit comes as the conflict between Ukrainian armed forces and the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine is reportedly intensifying despite a peace deal known as the Minsk accord.

The Minsk peace agreement, brokered by France and Germany and signed by Russia and Ukraine in February 2015, calls for a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front lines, and constitutional reforms to give eastern Ukraine more autonomy.

A United Nations report on June 13 said at least 10,090 people, including 2,777 civilians, have been killed during the conflict since it began in April 2014.

Several U.S. analysts said that even in the absence of clear substantive statements, Poroshenko's visit was more of a victory than anything.

"The Ukrainians can make the argument for glass half-full with this meeting, but at the same time there are also a lot of commitments I think that the Ukrainians would like to get but still have not been given yet," said Michael Kimmage, who oversaw Russia and Ukraine issues while working on the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department.

Still, Kimmage said, it's still unlikely that the Trump White House will agree to the long-standing Ukrainian request to supply more advanced lethal weaponry, to aid its armed forces' fight against Russia-backed separatists.

"Everything that [the Trump administration] has said so far about Ukraine leads one to believe they would be if anything more reluctant to send lethal weapons than the Obama administration was," he told RFE/RL. "It seems with sanctions they are very much on the same page with the previous administration, but I would be shocked to see the provision of lethal weapons."

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv, Reuters, and AP
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