WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared Monday that Russian aggression in Ukraine has only reinforced the unity of the U.S. and Europe, as they weighed the prospects of reviving an elusive peace plan to end the conflict.
Still, Obama held open the prospect that if a new round of diplomacy this week fails, the U.S. could send Ukraine’s beleaguered military defensive weaponry. The president said that while he has yet to make a decision on lethal aid, his team is considering “whether there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of Russian aggression.”
Merkel and other European leaders staunchly oppose arming Ukraine, in part out of fear of sparking a proxy war with Russia.
Obama said U.S. consideration of supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine “is not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that was determined. It is rather to see whether or not there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of separatist aggression.”
Journalists and experts described Obama’s remarks as tepid:
Obama opening statement w/Merkel seems written more in buttercream icing than steel. Putin has probably already switched back to ice hockey.
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) February 9, 2015
Merkel/Obama sound like v vague threat of weapons to Ukraine to try influence Putin, but leaving room not to follow through if he ignores it
— Shaun Walker (@shaunwalker7) February 9, 2015
The U.S. and Europe have largely been in agreement on their response to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, raising the prospect that a public split over lethal aid is a tactic to push Russian Vladimir Putin to agree to a peace plan.
During a joint White House news conference with Obama, Merkel reaffirmed that she sees no military solution to the fighting in eastern Ukraine. However, she added that no matter what Obama decides, “the alliance between the United states and Europe will continue to stand, will continue to be solid.”
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met with Putin and Ukrainian leaders last week and announced a new summit meeting for Wednesday in Minsk. The United States was not at the negotiating table last week, nor will it participate in Wednesday’s talks.
Merkel, who has perhaps the most productive relationship with Putin of any Western leader, said reaching a diplomatic agreement was crucial to keeping the peace in Europe.
“I myself actually would not be able to live without having made this attempt,” she said through a translator.
More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April, according to a U.N. tally. The bloodshed has markedly increased over the past two weeks, sparking both the new diplomatic manoeuvring and Obama’s re-evaluation of sending Ukraine defensive military aid.
Supporters of Kiev were not happy with Obama’s remarks:
The U.S. has so far limited its military assistance to non-lethal equipment, including gas masks and radar technology to detect incoming fire. If Obama approves lethal aid, the U.S. could send Ukraine anti-tank missiles, such as the Javelin weapon system, along with armoured vehicles.
The U.S. and Europe have largely focused their punitive measures against Russia on several rounds of economic sanctions. The penalties, along with plummeting oil prices, have caused significant damage to Russia’s economy.
The European Union decided Monday to temporarily hold off on ordering more sanctions on Russians and Ukrainian separatists while awaiting the outcome of the peace talks.
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