WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied behind efforts to reach a long-shot diplomatic resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine Monday, but they offered no clear path for how the West would proceed if talks this week fail.
During a joint White House news conference, Obama dangled the prospect that the U.S. could for the first time send anti-tank weapons and other defensive arms to Ukraine. While no decision has been made, the president said he had ordered his team to consider "whether there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of Russian aggression."
Merkel staunchly opposes arming Ukraine's beleaguered military. The German chancellor, who has perhaps the most productive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, made clear she had not given up on the possibility that diplomatic negotiations could produce an elusive peace plan.
"It has always proved to be right to try again and again to sort such a conflict," Merkel said through a translator.
The U.S. and Europe have focused on economic sanctions in their punitive actions against Russia. 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 the Russians and Ukrainian separatists while awaiting the outcome of this week's peace talks.
The U.S. and Europe have largely been in agreement on their response to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, raising the possibility that a public split over lethal aid is merely a tactic to push Putin to strike a deal to end the fighting. Obama and Merkel both repeatedly said Monday that the U.S. and Europe would stay united in efforts to stop Russian provocations.
The White House meetings followed German and French-led talks last week with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The parties will meet again Wednesday in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. The United States has not been at the table for either set of discussions.
In eastern Ukraine on Monday, a powerful explosion rocked a chemical plant and set it on fire outside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. Rebels said government shelling had hit the plant, which lies in the middle of Ukraine's industrial heartland.
More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April, according to a United Nations tally. On Monday, Ukraine said about 1,500 Russian troops had crossed the border into Ukraine via rebel-controlled border posts over the weekend, but military spokesman Andriy Lysenko did not provide any proof.
Russia has denied supplying the rebels with either troops or heavy weapons, but Western military experts say the sheer amount of new heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine belies the Russian denial.
Ukraine and the rebels reached a peace deal last fall, but it has repeatedly been violated by both sides. The bloodshed in eastern Ukraine has markedly increased over the past two weeks, leading to both the new diplomatic maneuvering and Obama's re-evaluation of sending Ukraine military aid.
A senior administration official said Obama's national security team has been discussing a range of options for helping the Ukrainian military hold its ground in the east. However, the options have not formally been presented to Obama yet, according to the official, who was granted anonymity in order to discuss the internal deliberations.
The president gave no indication Monday of how quickly he would make a decision on possibly ramping up military assistance, nor did he indicate whether there was a specific development that might trigger that step.
"The measure by which I make these decisions is, is it more likely to be effective than not," he said.
Even if Obama comes down in favor of sending Ukraine defensive weapons, his advisers have downplayed the notion that doing so might tip the scales of the conflict. The president's goal, aides say, would be to help the Ukrainians hold their positions, not necessarily give them the level of weaponry that would be required to put them on the same level as the Russian-backed forces.
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 armored vehicles and intelligence systems that could allow forces to better anticipate incoming offensives.
Details of the proposals being discussed between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have not been revealed. However, a French diplomatic official said Monday that a demilitarized zone between Ukraine and Russia was a "condition" for a ceasefire, but remained a sticking point in the new international push for peace.
The official said other main difficulties include how to police the Ukrainian-Russian border to ensure Russia is not sending troops or equipment to the separatists. Ukrainian officials would have the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe conduct such monitoring.
Another potentially problematic area: the future status of regions in eastern Ukraine now under control of pro-Russian rebels. Ukraine passed a law last year proposing what it called significant autonomy for the east, but rebels dismissed it as vague and meaningless. Russia has pushed for "federalization" of Ukraine, which would presumably give the east significant independence, but Ukrainian authorities oppose that.
The French official spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations.
Associated Press writer Sylvia Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.
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