Ukraine crisis: Obama looking at all options for resolving problem with Russia

President Barack Obama says Russian aggression against Ukraine has reinforced the unity of the U.S. and its partners in Europe and around the world.

Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to try one more time for peace with Putin

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House in Washington today. (Guy Cameron/Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday his administration is looking at all options in handling the crisis in Ukraine, but he has not yet decided whether the United States will provide lethal arms to Kyiv.

"The possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that is being examined, but I have not made a decision about that yet," he said, speaking at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House.

To be sure, the president didn’t favour more military engagement: "The prospect for a military solution to this problem has always been low."

Obama said U.S. consideration of supplying defensive weapons to Ukraine "is not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that was determined. It is rather to see whether or not there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defences in the face of separatist aggression."

Separately, Merkel said that while there have been setbacks on reaching a diplomatic solution with Russia over Ukraine, such efforts will continue. She does not see a military solution to the crisis, she added.

"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.

Merkel said she and the president of France have agreed to "one more try" to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine.

"There is anything but an assured success in this," Merkel told the news conference.

Critics of Obama's cautious foreign policy approach are already demanding decisive U.S. action to help Kyiv fight the separatists in eastern Ukraine, even if this deepens a standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

An elderly woman reacts after the residential block in which she lives in was damaged by a recent shelling, according to locals, on the outskirts of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine on Monday. (Maxim Shemetov/Reuters)

Nine Ukrainian troops have been killed in the past 24 hours and seven civilians also died, Kyiv said on Monday, with fighting particularly intense around the town of Debaltseve, a major rail and road junction northeast of the city of Donetsk.

Citing a Ukraine military spokesman, Agence France-Presse reported Monday morning that at least 1,500 Russian troops and convoys of military hardware entered Ukraine on Feb. 7 and 8.

At the same time, at a security conference in Munich over the weekend, Merkel said it was uncertain whether further negotiations would lead to a deal with Putin, but she argued that all opportunities for a diplomatic solution should be pursued.

Merkel, who with French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Putin on Wednesday, has come under fire from U.S. foreign policy hawks in the Republican-controlled Congress who want defensive weapons sent to the Ukraine army.

Blankets vs. tanks

"The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals," Sen. John McCain said at the Munich conference. "Blankets don't do well against Russian tanks."

But Merkel made clear in Munich her opposition to arming Kyiv. "I understand the debate, but I believe that more weapons will not lead to the progress Ukraine needs," she said. "I really doubt that."

Speaking Russian: German Chancellor Angela Merkel keeps in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)

A Russian speaker who grew up in East Germany, she has taken the lead in pursuing a diplomatic solution, speaking with Putin by phone dozens of times over the past year and meeting him in Russia, Australia and Italy in recent months.

Last week, Merkel and Hollande met Putin in Moscow and followed this up with a conference call on Sunday also including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The four are due to meet in Minsk on Wednesday, but so far no breakthrough has emerged in the nearly year-long conflict that has claimed over 5,000 lives.

Moscow warned on Monday that Putin will not be spoken to in the language of ultimatums.

Putin blames West

Asked about media speculation Merkel had issued him an ultimatum at talks on arranging a summit on Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Govorit Moskva radio: "Nobody has ever talked to the president in the tone of an ultimatum — and could not do so even if they wanted to."

Putin says Ukraine's crisis has been caused by the West. He told an Egyptian newspaper that Western countries had broken pledges not to expand NATO and forced countries to choose between them and Russia, the BBC reported Monday

Obama has to decide whether to supply weapons, impose tougher sanctions on Russia in the hope of forcing Putin to compromise, or throw his full weight behind the revised German-French peace initiative, even though U.S. officials accuse Putin of shredding a prior ceasefire agreement signed in September.

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say he will weigh his options carefully and will not be rushed into a decision. "The timetable is fluid. This is too important to make a snap decision," one official said.

Officials say Obama has recommendations on his desk outlining the pros and cons of supplying Ukraine with lethal arms, such as anti-tank weapons, small arms and ammunition.

Maintain unity

Some of his top advisers, including Ashton Carter, his choice for new defence secretary, increasingly favour such an approach. National security adviser Susan Rice said arms supplies were under consideration but signalled caution, and stressed the need to maintain unity with European allies.

Such a step would be taken only "in close consultation and in co-ordination with our partners, whose unity on this issue with us thus far has been a core element of our strength in responding to Russia's aggression", she said.

In Kyiv, military spokesman Vyacheslav Seleznyov said government forces had come under attack from the rebels on about 100 separate occasions in the past 24 hours. As well as the nine dead, 26 troops had been wounded.

In eastern Ukraine, regional police chief Vyacheslav Abroskin said seven civilians had been killed by shelling in Debaltseve and another frontline town of Avdiivka on Sunday.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC


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