The Obama administration has signalled it no longer recognises Viktor Yanukovych as Ukraine's president. The shift of support for opposition leaders in Kiev came even as US officials sought to assure Russia that it does not have to be shut out of a future relationship with a new Ukrainian government.
Yanukovych was widely seen as a puppet of Moscow against Ukraine protesters who demanded stronger ties with the European Union to boost the faltering economy of the onetime Soviet state. His whereabouts are unknown after fleeing the capital Kiev in the wake of deadly protests seeking his ouster.
US officials said the International Monetary Fund is considering an aid package as high as US$15 billion (NZ$18b) to help stabilise a new, transitional government in Kiev. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US will provide additional aid to complement the IMF, aimed at fostering Ukrainian economic stability, but it was not immediately clear how much money it would provide.
"Yanukovych left Kiev. He took his furniture, packed his bags, and we don't have more information on his whereabouts," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. "So there are officials who have stepped in and are acting in response to that leadership gap at the moment."
Carney said that although Yanukovych "was a democratically elected leader, his actions have undermined his legitimacy, and he is not actively leading the country at present."
Senior US officials, including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, are scheduled to meet with political, business and civil society leaders during a series of meetings in Kiev over the next two days. Top European Union officials are already there.
Psaki said Congress must approve any US aid package, and several lawmakers on Monday (local time) called for a quick show of support for Ukraine's new leaders.
"Now more than ever, the Ukrainian people need the continued support of their friends," Senator John McCain said in a statement. "The path of reform will be difficult, but if the new Ukrainian government is prepared to make these tough - and, at times, unpopular - decisions, it will need significant assistance from the IMF and the European Union. The United States must be ready to provide additional assistance as well."
The protests in Kiev were sparked by Yanukovych's shelving of an agreement with the European Union in November and turning instead for a US$15b (NZ$18b) bailout loan from Russia. Within weeks, the protests expanded amid outrage over corruption and human rights abuses, leading to calls for Yanukovych's resignation. Anger boiled over last week after 82 people, primarily demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces in the bloodiest violence in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.