Ukraine crisis: Barack Obama and Angela Merkel show united front ahead of Minsk summit while holding off on tricky question of military aid

Both leaders seem intent on saying nothing that could suggest fractures in transatlantic resolve

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The Independent US

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pleaded with President Barack Obama to let her make one last attempt to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine before he considers sending lethal arms to Kiev. “I myself actually would not be able to live without having made this attempt,” she said.

Meeting at the White House for several hours of talks, both leaders were adamant that the United States and the European nations would maintain a common front in challenging Russia which the West accuses of sending both military hardware and personnel to help separatists in the disputed territories in Ukraine. And for now, both leaders, said the focused remained on bringing about a diplomatic solution.

“We are in absolute agreement that the 21st Century cannot have us stand idle and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the end of a barrel of a gun,” Mr Obama declared at a joint press conference.  He added that he had not yet made a decision on sending lethal arms to Kiev.  Part of  his calculation, he said, would be assessing the risk of the arms falling into the “wrong hands”.

Both leaders seemed intent on saying nothing that could either suggest fractures in transatlantic resolve or weaken the already entirely fragile prospects of a planned summit this Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus, between Russian Vladimir Putin and Ms Merkel and French President Francois Hollande.  That would imply at least a ceasefire and agreement on moving forward towards a permanent settlement.

But if the Minsk meeting falters, US patience could be stretched.   Mr Obama meanwhile is under growing pressure from members of the US Congress to begin sending weapons to Ukraine without delay.  Republican Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, at a weekend security conference in Munich cautioned against US being complicit in trying to appease Mr Putin.  He is calling on Congress to pass a law demanding the shipment of arms.

Anxious to avoid any overt clash with Ms Merkel by insisting no decision on supplying arms had been made, Mr Obama was clear that it was under consideration. “It is true if that diplomacy fails what I have asked my team to do is look at all other options, the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options,” he said.  “That is being considered, but I have not made a decision about that.”

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While Ms Merkel, in common with many other European leaders, has spoken out forcibly against sending new arms into the Ukraine hotspot, she appeared almost to leave the door open to it here. “If at a certain point in time one has to say that 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 of what one can do,” she said.

Mr Obama was at pains to tell Americans listening that any move to step up aid to the Ukrainian military is “not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that is determined” but would be part of an effort to “bolsters its defences in the face of separatist aggression”.

The failure of Mr Obama to declare himself in favour of sending lethal arms will doubtless disappoint the Kiev government. It will not come as a surprise to many in Washington who have seen Mr Obama as a leader averse to unilateral and proactive intervention, as shown when he pulled back from launching airstrikes in Syria after the regime there used chemical weapons to subdue its rebellion.

He indeed refused to take the bait from a German journalist asking what his “red line” would be in this instance that would persuade him that sending arms was necessary.   There would be no “specific point" at which “lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here,” he replied. “It is the ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory.”

Mr McCain argued that Mr Putin would attempt to make “tactical compromises here or there, but just as a prelude to further aggression”. Insisting on the wisdom of sending lethal arms, he went on: “The right question is: If we help Ukrainians increase the military cost to the Russian forces that have invaded their country, how long can Putin sustain a war that he tells his people is not happening? That is why we must provide defensive arms to Ukraine.”

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