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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama heads to Asia as tensions in Ukraine continue to flare

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Joe Biden,Russia,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Asia,Ukraine

President Obama is moving forward with his seven-day trip to Asia this week as clashes between Ukraine and Russia continue and tensions in the region continue to simmer.

The president will leave Tuesday evening for Tokyo, Japan, where he will begin his four-country tour through Asia. After Japan, he will head to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines on a make-up trip that was originally scheduled to take place during the government shutdown last fall.

While Obama administration officials touted the travel as an important opportunity to to pursue a “strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region,” developments in Ukraine are continuing to make headlines and distracting from the president's long-attempted pivot to Asia.

“It's a region that includes several important U.S. allies, developing democracies, and emerging powers,” Susan Rice, White House senior national security adviser, told reporters Friday. “So we increasingly see our top priorities as tied to Asia, whether it's accessing new markets or promoting exports or protecting our security interests and promoting our core values.”

Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Kiev Monday to meet with Ukrainian leaders. After an agreement last week aimed at easing the tensions, the Ukrainian government said it would set down its weapons and halt a military operation aimed at taking back buildings occupied by pro-Russian forces for the Easter weekend.

But the accusations of blame between Ukraine and Russia continued over the weekend, after a shootout at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine held by the separatists left at least three of them dead.

Biden plans to meet Monday with a delegation of U.S. lawmakers, led by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., who are also in Ukraine. The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine will brief him on the situation on the ground, and he will meet with U.S. embassy staff in Kiev.

His focus for Tuesday meetings with Ukrainian officials is “national unity,” and he plans to call for the “urgent implementation” of the agreement hashed out in Geneva late last week, according to a senior administration official.

The vice president will also talk about the various forms of assistance the U.S. is offering Kiev and speak about the country's long and short-term energy needs.

Several U.S. energy experts are also in Ukraine this week to try to provide a “measure of short-term” natural gas supplies, and Biden will discuss with them “medium and long-term strategies” to boost conventional production and begin to take advantage of internal gas reserves, the official said.

Before Obama departs for Japan, he and the first family will host the White House Easter Egg Roll Monday, and Tuesday he will travel to Oso, Wash., to view the devastation from the recent mudslide and meet with families affected by the disaster.

This story was published at 8:05 a.m. and has been updated.

This story is based in part on wire reports.

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