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Ukraine's fight with Russia is 'America's war, too,' Poroshenko says

Ukraine's fight with Russia is 'America's war, too,' Poroshenko says
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, acknowledges a standing ovation Thursday after addressing a joint meeting of Congress. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Ukraine's new president thanked the United States for showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine, but warned that greater tests lie ahead, telling Congress that his nation's fight against Russian aggression "is America's war, too."

Petro Poroshenko, addressing a joint meeting of Congress at the start of a daylong visit to Washington on Thursday, called incursions into Ukrainian territory by Russia "one of the worst setbacks for the cause of democracy in the world in years." He asked for additional political and logistical help, and for the United States to give his country a special non-allied partner status in NATO.

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"Democracies must support each other," Poroshenko said. "They must show solidarity in the face of aggression and adversity. Otherwise they will be eliminated one by one."

Elected president of Ukraine in May following Russia's annexation of Crimea and as fighting escalated against Russian-backed separatists in the east, Poroshenko acknowledged fears of "a new Cold War" but said that it must not be accepted "as an inevitability."

Even as he warned that the "imperialistic mindset" of the former Soviet Union persisted today in Vladimir Putin, Poroshenko said he stood ready to work with Russia to sustain the recent cease-fire agreement. But he said he would never agree to "Ukraine's dismemberment," calling the annexation of Crimea one of the "most cynical acts of treachery in the modern era."

"We will never obey or bend to the aggressor," he said. "We are ready to fight. But we are a people of peace."

Poroshenko later met in the Oval Office with President Obama, who pledged his support for Ukraine's fight against the separatists and to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Obama said he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to continue its assistance to the Poroshenko government and promised to stand up for an inclusive Ukraine.

"I'm pleased that during this meeting we reaffirmed that commitment to Ukraine and we are providing additional assistance, both economic and security assistance, to Ukraine to make sure that not only are they able to weather this storm economically, but they're also going to be able to continue to build up an effective security force to defend themselves from aggression," Obama said.

Poroshenko publicly thanked Obama for his "leadership to the world," but he didn't appear to have gotten what he came to Washington to secure: more lethal assistance for Ukraine's fight against Russian-backed rebels.

Poroshenko told Congress that the security of Europe relies on a strong U.S. response that includes more military equipment, both lethal and nonlethal. "One cannot win the war with blankets," Poroshenko said in his emotional address to lawmakers.

For months, Obama has declined to provide lethal aid to Ukraine out of concern about exacerbating the tension. Before Poroshenko's visit to the Oval Office, White House officials emphasized the importance of the aid the U.S. has provided and did not suggest a dramatic change was imminent.

Instead, the administration announced a new $46-million package in security assistance that will include body armor, helmets, vehicles and night-vision goggles. It does not include any lethal aid.

Obama promised to support Ukrainians in their fight for "freedom, prosperity and self-determination."

Poroshenko's visit comes as the United States has been consumed by the new threat posed by Islamic State militants. Poroshenko acknowledged that Americans are weary of conflict after a decade of war, but said this was a moment in history "whose importance cannot be measured solely in percentages of GDP growth."

"Values come first -- this is the truth the West would remind Ukraine of over the last years. Now it is Ukraine's turn to remind the West of this truth," he said.

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Poroshenko was greeted warmly by members of Congress, and his speech was interrupted repeatedly by standing ovations. He broke from his prepared text at the start of speech, saying it was "impossible to imagine what I am feeling right now." The famously sentimental House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) also teared up as Poroshenko hailed the ties between the two nations.

He concluded his speech by linking the well-recognized New Hampshire state motto, "Live free or die," to the spirit of his nation's own clashes: " 'Live free' must be the message Ukraine and America send to the world, while standing together in this time of enormous challenge."

Staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.

Follow @mikememoli for more news out of Washington.

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