Ukraine crisis: Merkel urges talks as Obama weighs lethal arms for Kiev

The German chancellor insists that diplomacy is the only way to resolve the worsening fighting in Ukraine, while US hawks argue that Kiev needs to be empowered to defend itself against the Russia-backed rebels.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.

European and American leaders are struggling to maintain a unified approach to the crisis in Ukraine, as pro-Russian separatists press their offense against Kiev's forces behind unwavering support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While most Europeans still favor a diplomatic solution to the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, an increasing number of Americans are calling for lethal military assistance such as anti-tank artillery and arms and ammunition. The differences over tactics threaten to disrupt negotiations to ease the crisis, which are set to continue this week. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France are expected to meet in Belarus Wednesday to try to broker a peace deal.

President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have the chance to bridge the tactical gap in a previously scheduled meeting at the White House Monday. Mr. Obama is said to be undecided about the proposal, while Ms. Merkel has publicly decried it. She argues that new weaponry can’t match Russian arms and forces and would likely bring an end to negotiations.

Merkel’s call for restraint resonates widely across Europe. But in the United States, a vocal Republican-led Congress has criticized the chancellor for what they perceive as her naive, even defeatist, approach to Russian aggression.

"The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals," Sen. John McCain said at a high-level security conference in Munich Sunday. "Blankets don't do well against Russian tanks."

But many experts disagree with the underlying arguments put forth by neo-conservative hawks. John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, argues in a New York Times opinion article that any attempt to raise the costs of fighting to the point where Mr. Putin will cave is unlikely to work.

What advocates of arming Ukraine fail to understand is that Russian leaders believe their country’s core strategic interests are at stake in Ukraine; they are unlikely to give ground, even if it means absorbing huge costs.

Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally …

Russia is no exception in this regard. Thus Mr. Putin has not budged in the face of sanctions and is unlikely to make meaningful concessions if the costs of the fighting in Ukraine increase.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Merkel has given Putin until Wednesday to agree to a road map to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Western officials told the paper that if Moscow refuses to negotiate, Berlin will likely move to step up European sanctions against Russian companies.

Merkel and Obama, along with French President François Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, are to meet in person Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus, to finalize the deal.

But German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cautioned that the Minsk meeting is not set in stone yet, The Associated Press reports. He said officials from all sides were meeting Monday in Berlin to try to set the ground rules for the new round of negotiations.

"We hope that the outstanding issues can be resolved to a point that a Minsk meeting would hold some promise and can produce the first steps toward defusing the situation and a cease-fire," Mr. Steinmeier told reporters in Brussels, adding "[but] it's not yet certain."

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