President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday said the U.S. and Europe are united in trying to end the conflict in Ukraine. But President Obama said he is weighing providing lethal defensive weapons to the besieged Ukrainian government in the event that diplomacy fails, a step that his European allies have resisted.
“It is true that if in fact diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” the president said. “Defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined, but I have not made that decision yet.”
President Obama declared that the West "cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”
Obama and Merkel spoke at a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House. They held a formal meeting and holding a working lunch with Vice President Joe Biden.
"Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity of the United States and Germany," Obama said.
The president said that the Russians have violated a September truce agreement and have continued to support Ukrainian separatists with tanks, artillery and other arms. He recommitted the U.S. to maintaining sanctions and diplomatic pressure – but added he might be prepared to go further and send the defensive weapons.
"We will not relent," Obama said.
Merkel, who's long had a working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been opposed to providing lethal assistance, partly for fear of sparking a proxy war with Russia. The German economy -- and particularly its energy sector -- is closely tied with Russia, and the Germans initially resisted imposing strict sanctions on Russia.
“I’ve always said, I don’t see a military solution to this conflict,” Merkel said on Monday.
But she emphasized: “The alliance between United States and Europe will continue to stand, will continue to be solid.”
“We stand up for the same principles of the inviolability of territorial integrity,” Merkel said. “Russia has violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The meeting comes two days before European leaders are set to meet with Putin in Minsk, Belarus, to try and negotiate peace in the region. The U.S. doesn't plan to participate, though Vice President Joe Biden met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko over the weekend.
An agreement to cease hostilities was made in September, but the fighting has continued regardless. Thousands of people have been killed as the Russian government has provided tanks, artillery and other assistance to separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine.
"Defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined, but I have not made that decision yet."'
The president wouldn't draw a so-called "red line" that would trigger providing more than the non-lethal assistance the U.S. is already sending.
"There's not going to be any specific point at which I say, 'clearly lethal defensive weapons are going to be appropriate here,'" the president said. "It's going to be an ongoing analysis of what we can do."
He also reassured Germans who might have been listening that, "we are not looking for Russia to fail -- we are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened." With German industry in many ways tied to the Russian economy, Russia's overall decline could significantly hurt Germany.
During the press conference, Obama also said that he and Merkel discussed the threat from the Islamic State, as well as economic issues related to the Eurozone currency and global climate change.
The president also briefly discussed Israel and Iran, saying that he didn't think negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program should continue past their current deadline.
But he also tried to strike a hopeful note.
"At a time when conflicts around the world seem intractable, when progress seems to be beyond grasp, Germany's story gives up hope," the president said. "Walls can come down."