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U.S. will stand by Ukraine, Biden says in Kiev visit

KIEV, Ukraine – The United States will stand by Ukrainians against any Russian aggression that threatens their nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Vice President Biden pledged Tuesday during a visit to Kiev.

His vow of support came as Ukraine’s interim president called for a resumption of security operations against separatists in eastern Ukraine after two men were slain, including an official.

“No nation has the right to simply grab land from another nation, and we will never recognize Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, and neither will the world,” Biden said after meeting with Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. “No nation should threaten its neighbors by amassing troops along the border. We call on Russia to pull back these forces. No nation should stir instability in its neighbor’s country.”

Biden threatened greater costs and greater isolation for Russia, already facing fresh sanctions after annexing Crimea last month, and demanded that it “stop supporting men hiding behind masks in unmarked uniforms sowing unrest in eastern Ukraine.”

“I came here to Kiev to let you know, Mr. Prime Minister, and every Ukrainian know that the United States stands with you and is working to support all Ukrainians seeking a better future,” Biden said. “You should know that you will not walk this road alone. We will walk it with you.”

He demanded “concrete steps” by Moscow, accusing it of failing to abide by commitments to help de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine it made last week during meetings in Geneva with representatives of the U.S., Ukraine and the European Union.

Later Tuesday, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchinov called for renewed security operations against separatists in the Donetsk region after the bodies of two men were found outside Slovyansk. One of the dead was identified as a city councilman from Horlivka who had been kidnapped the day before.

The president said separatists had “crossed the line, beginning to torture and kill patriots of Ukraine.”

Security operations were suspended last week for Easter celebrations and to give separatists time to abide by the Geneva agreement, which called on them to surrender their weapons and government buildings they had seized. The militants have insisted they won’t disarm until the interim government in Kiev does the same, calling its rule of Ukraine the result of an illegal coup.

As Biden met with Turchinov before wrapping up his two-day visit, the White House announced an aid package for Ukraine that includes $11.4 million in assistance for upcoming elections, economic aid and $8 million in nonlethal military supplies. The aid is designed to shore up the interim government, which took power in February with the fall of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych.

The Pentagon said Tuesday that it was sending 600 soldiers to Eastern Europe from the 173rd Infantry Brigade, a U.S. Army airborne unit based in Vicenza, Italy. They will be deployed in 150-soldier companies to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia over the next month for military exercises.

The separatists, who Ukraine and many in the West maintain are coordinated and led by Russian agents, continued Tuesday to hold administrative buildings in a number of cities and towns of eastern Ukraine. During the day, gunmen in Slovyansk demanded additional firearms in exchange for a local police chief they had kidnapped the previous day, the UNIAN news agency reported.

Ukraine’s government submitted a bill to the parliament offering amnesty for separatists who surrender seized buildings and give up their weapons, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website. Biden commended that measure as a sign that Ukraine would honor its commitments made in Geneva, including holding a presidential election May 25 that is “clean and closely monitored so that nobody on the 26th of May can question” its legitimacy.

Yatsenyuk said Russia was seeking to disrupt the election.