German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited United States President Barack Obama in the White House on Monday. The visit, which had been planned for some time, saw both leaders discuss a wide array of trade and security issues. The recent developments in Ukraine, with Russia destabilizing the country, dominated a large part of the talks and the hour-long joint press conference that followed. The press conference was attended by Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Susan Rice.
Photo by Ludo Segers

Both leaders appeared united in their stand against policies pursued by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the next steps in the peace process – including a new peace conference in Minsk later this week. Whilst there appears to be a shift at the political level in the US Capital about providing Ukraine with defensive lethal weapons, President Barack Obama stated that his administration was still exploring all options. The president is increasingly under political pressure, particularly by the Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain, to take a much tougher stance in dealing with Russia’s Putin.

President Obama thanked Ms. Merkel for her strong leadership and partnership in the Ukrainian crisis and he stated that while he was willing to let the diplomatic process run its course, there was “absolute agreement that the 21st century cannot have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun”. 

The president said: “The international community, working together, can ratchet up the costs for (Russia) violation the core principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He stated that “Russia has paid a significant cost for its actions”, but he also observed that so far “this has not yet dissuaded Mr. Putin from following the course that he is on, but it has created a measurable negative impact on the Russian economy, and that will continue.” The US president also acknowledged that he thought it unlikely that the Ukrainian army could rebuff the Russian army.

Ms. Merkel has serious reservations that weapons will solve a conflict that in the end will need to be resolved diplomatically. “I believe that more weapons will not lead to the progress Ukraine needs. I really doubt that,” the German Chancellor said. “I have always said I don’t see a military solution to this conflict, but we have to put all our efforts behind a diplomatic solution.”

Both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Obama stressed their commitment to economic sanctions that have left Russia’s economy "in tatters", as Mr. Obama stated. Mr. Obama said: “Sanctions on Russia need to fully remain in force until Russia complies fully with its obligations.” He observed that “this is ruining the Russian economy and hurting the Russian people and Russia’s isolation will only worsen, both politically and economically”.

There are increasingly calls on the Capitol Hill to provide lethal weapons, such as anti-aircraft missiles, to Ukraine if the present diplomatic efforts of Ms. Merkel and French President François Hollande fail. The US president has confirmed that his administration is considering providing arms to Ukraine. Mr. Obama noted that “Russia has violated just about every commitment they made in the Minsk agreement” and that “instead of withdrawing, Russia has sent in more tanks and armoured personnel carriers and heavy artillery and seized more territory and shelled civilian areas, destroyed villages and driven more Ukrainians from their homes. These are the facts.”

The president also stated that in cooperation with NATO allies the US is bolstering its presence in Central and Eastern Europe as part of Article 5 obligations - collective defence. In addition to all these efforts, Mr. Obama said that the US was working with the IMF and other partners “to provide Ukraine with critical financial support as it pursues economic and anti-corruption reforms”.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s nominee as Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, said during a Senate hearing that he would consider providing lethal weapons to Kiev. Meanwhile some leading Republicans continue to call for delivering lethal weapons to Ukraine. There is a strong feeling among senior political advisors that Putin’s proposal for the new round in the Minsk peace talks has shown little willingness to make any diplomatic compromise.

The German chancellor pointed out during the press conference that “foreign ministers of the European Union last week already tasked the European Commission to think about further possible sanctions”. Meanwhile, the EU delayed the implementing of more sanctions – including a travel ban on 19 individuals and nine companies facing asset freezes and travel bans. Most of those targeted are located in the rebel-controlled part of eastern Ukraine. The sanctions will come into effect next Monday, unless there are clear positive developments in Minsk on Wednesday.

This may very well be one of Putin’s last chances to resolve the conflict. It all started a year ago with destabilizing first Crimea and then grabbing the territory after a mock referendum. First Putin denied involvement there, but admitted later that "the little green men", as Russian soldiers without identification in Ukraine came to be known, were indeed involved on the ground. For almost nine months now the Russian leader has denied involvement in Eastern Ukraine, but all the evidence of supplying heavy weaponry and Russian soldiers is becoming stronger by the day.

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