Obama, Merkel Shy From Committing Arms to Ukraine

Obama, Merkel Shy From Committing Arms to Ukraine
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President Obama said Monday that “a decision has not yet been made” about providing arms to help Ukraine defend against Russian-backed fighters. He expressed support, during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for continued negotiations toward a cease-fire, backed by threats from the United States and Europe for additional economic sanctions if Moscow does not relent.

During the joint appearance in the East Room, Obama said diplomacy and the pursuit of a cease-fire would continue to be the shared U.S.-European policy until Ukraine’s allies are persuaded that other options, including lethal assistance, might help achieve objectives.

“The possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that's being examined,” the president said.

Obama and Merkel sought to display a congenial and united front. Nonetheless, their differences were at times evident. She described her opposition to arming Ukraine as “my opinion,” while Obama said he had not reached “a decision about that yet.”

Meanwhile, as Obama sounded cautious notes about the next phase of Ukraine’s bleak struggle with its neighbor, he indicated some measured impatience with Iran as international talks to end Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon approach a deadline in March.

“I don't see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation and the bottom line that the world requires to have confidence that they're not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said in response to a question. “The issues now are, does Iran have the political will and desire to get a deal done?”

On Sunday, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said extending the nuclear talks, under way for more than a year, was not in anyone’s interest. But he said failure to achieve a political accord by March, and then a comprehensive agreement by July, as negotiators had in mind, would not be “the end of the world.”

The president agreed that rationales for deadline extensions have ebbed while the time to conclude an accord -- he has said odds of success are no better than 50/50 -- is fast approaching.

Obama is feeling heat from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who staunchly opposes a nuclear deal with Iran and is running for re-election on the basis of that argument. The president is also under pressure from skeptical U.S. lawmakers -- including some Democrats -- who vow to legislatively tighten sanctions on Iran if the nuclear talks don’t lead to a deal soon. Obama this month won a temporary reprieve of sorts from senators who initially argued that tougher sanctions as talks continued would strengthen, not weaken, U.S. negotiators’ arguments with Tehran. Obama strongly disagreed.

At the same time, potential GOP presidential candidates are now traveling the country offering daily critiques about the administration’s foreign policy and what conservatives describe as Obama’s passive leadership and deliberative hunt for strategies to confront international challenges.

Netanyahu, now embroiled in a public rift with the Obama administration over his decision to appeal directly to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, is scheduled to speak to a March 3 joint session of Congress to express his reservations about Iran.

Merkel, in response to questions from German and U.S. journalists, invoked the Iran nuclear talks as evidence that international sanctions can take time, but are capable of propelling governments to rethink the consequences of their policy misadventures. She repeated her arguments that punishing Russia economically for the incursions into Ukraine remains preferable to attempts to counter the violence using Western-supplied weapons and military aid.

The violence in eastern Ukraine since 2014 has killed an estimated 5,300 people and driven 1.5 million from their homes -- a crisis the German leader acknowledged in human terms.

“When you have a situation now where every night you see people dying, you see civilian casualties, you see the dire conditions under which people live, it is incumbent upon us as politicians, we owe it to the people to explore every avenue until somebody gives in,” she said.

The chancellor, who met Vice President Biden in Munich a few days ago, appeared at the White House fresh from an emergency trip to Moscow with French President Francois Hollande to appeal directly to President Vladimir Putin to help hammer out a cease-fire.

Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry participated in Obama’s meetings with Merkel on Monday, along with other senior administration officials.

“I think it was a very good thing to put some costs onto the Russians through these sanctions that we agreed on, because we see also that Russia seems to be influenced by this,” Merkel said. “And this is why I am 100 percent behind these decisions.”

Merkel’s message, as anticipated, backed Ukraine’s territorial integrity against Russia’s incursion, but she argued for Europe’s focus on long-term goals for the Ukrainian people, as opposed to near-term tactics against its aggressor.

“I myself actually would not be able to live with not having made this attempt” to end the bloodshed, Merkel said of a Wednesday meeting tentatively scheduled in Minsk, Belarus, among leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia to see if an accord is possible.

“There is anything but an assured success in all of this. I have to be very clear about this,” the chancellor added through a translator. “But if, at a certain point in time, one has to say that a success is not possible, even if one puts every effort into it, then the United States and Europe have to sit together and try and explore further possibilities.”

Asked by a German reporter to describe a “red line” across which he might agree to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons and supplies, Obama said he would weigh all options. But he did not identify when he might reappraise his “hope” that the sanctions policy could change Putin’s calculus.

“There's not going to be any specific point at which I say, 'Ah, you know, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.’ It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory,” the president said.

“We are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened,” Obama added. “Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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