WASHINGTON — Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will visit the White House on Wednesday as President Obama searches for a way to head off the crisis in Ukraine that is testing the U.S.-Russian relationship.
Yatsenyuk's meeting with Obama comes just days before a hastily scheduled referendum in the Crimean region of Ukraine to decide whether the region will become part of Russia.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Tuesday the premier's meeting with Obama was meant to send the message to Moscow "that we strongly support Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government" that came into power last month.
(Read more: Global stocks slide as Crimea referendum looms)
"There is an opportunity here to prevent this situation from becoming more acute, and to prevent the costs to Russia from becoming higher," Carney said.
Obama has called Sunday's scheduled vote in Crimea "unconstitutional," but at the same time the White House has sought to focus attention on the fact that the Russians have a vested interest in what happens in Ukraine.
The president has made that argument twice in phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin since Russia's military incursion into Crimea, while pressing his concerns about Russia's actions with other world leaders in recent days.
But with the referendum just days away, Obama now finds himself racing against the clock to persuade Putin that it's in his interest not to alienate himself from the West and Ukraine, while at the same time looking for an off-ramp from the crisis that would allow the Russian president to save face on the world stage.
(Read more: Vitali Klitschko: Putin worried over Ukraine)
While protesting that Russia has violated Ukraine's sovereignty, the White House has also sought to stress that Russia has a legitimate interest in how Ukraine integrates with the European Union.
"We absolutely recognize that Russia has interests in Ukraine and that includes in Crimea," Carney said.
Congress has shown an unusual bipartisan streak as lawmakers collectively have expressed their anger at the Russians since Putin deployed troops into Crimea on Feb. 27.
On Tuesday evening, the House approved a symbolic resolution condemning Russia and calling on Obama to consider tough sanctions against Russia for the military incursion in Ukraine's territory.
Obama signed an executive order last week to allow for the implementation of visa bans and financial restrictions against Russian and Ukraine citizens who are responsible or complicit in threatening Ukraine sovereignty.
(Read more: Will Ukraine crisis impact investors?)
The White House has sidestepped suggestions that the battle to head off Sunday's referendum is fruitless. Earlier this week, former Defense secretary Robert Gates, who served in both the Obama and George W. Bush administration, said that Crimea is gone.
Michael Desch, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, said that the real issue now facing the White House is forging a way forward.
"We are now at a point where we have to convince the Ukrainians that this is the new reality, and the attention turns to what's the acceptable deal that can be worked out here," Desch said.
The Obama administration also dispatched senior officials from the State, Defense and Treasury departments and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Tuesday evening to Capitol Hill to give House members a classified briefing on the situation in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Vice Adm. Michael Rogers, Obama's nominee to be the next National Security Agency director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that there is evidence of cyber attacks against Ukraine's new government, but stopped short of saying that the Russian government was responsible for the attacks.
Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, who is the nominee to head the U.S. Transportation Command, told the same Senate committee that the U.S. military has already begun to draw contingency plans for the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan, which could potentially be complicated as a result of tensions with Russia. Part of the U.S. military's northern supply route winds through Russia.
Selva said the command has "been building alternative plans" because of the tensions.
"We have to look at using other options than over flight or transit through Russia if the conduct in Ukraine should continue," Selva said.
—By Aamer Madhani of USA Today