WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are trying for a public display of unity despite a potential split over arming Ukrainian fighters to wage a more effective battle against Russian-backed separatists.
That was the unstated point of Monday's meeting at the White House, where Merkel was to brief Obama on upcoming talks aimed at reviving a peace plan for besieged Ukraine.
At issue is not only Russian President Vladimir Putin's support for the separatists but the revival of the Soviet Cold War strategy of trying to create a critical division between the United States and its NATO allies, Germany in particular.
Merkel and French President Francois Hollande met with Ukrainian leaders and Putin last week and have announced a new summit meeting for Wednesday in Minsk. French and German leaders are to sit down with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Putin in an attempt to breathe life into a much-violated September peace plan. The United States will not be at the table.
That meeting in the Belarusian capital takes place with Merkel and Hollande deeply opposed to arming Ukraine in its bid to push back the separatists that NATO and the United States insist are being armed by Russia, which also has troops fighting in the eastern Ukraine. The White House has let it be known that Obama, who had resisted calls to send arms, was now considering doing just that. Opponents of arming Kiev believe that could open a proxy war between Washington and Moscow. Merkel and Hollande insist the only way to end the conflict is through diplomacy.
"It must be possible to find — not through military conflict but at the negotiating table — a balance of interests inside Ukraine that guarantees both the integrity of the state and the appropriate scale of autonomy" for the separatists, said German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen.
Secretary of State John Kerry, on NBC's "Meet the Press," said that he, too, was working for a diplomatic solution but was ambiguous on arms for Kiev.
"I have no doubt that additional assistance of economic kind and other kinds will be going to Ukraine. And we do so understanding that there is no military solution. The solution is a political, diplomatic one. But President Putin's got to make the decision to take an off ramp. And we have to make it clear to him that we are absolutely committed to the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine no matter what," he said in response to a direct question about sending arms.
At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Vice President Joe Biden stopped short of explicitly addressing possible arms deliveries. "We will continue to provide Ukraine with security assistance not to encourage war, but to allow Ukraine to defend itself," he said.
More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting began in April, according to a U.N. tally; the bloodshed has markedly increased over the past two weeks.
On another topic, it remains to be seen whether Merkel will again raise the issue of past National Security Agency tapping of her phone and the expulsion of Washington's top spy from Berlin after the Germans discovered one of its intelligence agents had passed about 200 documents to the CIA. While the issue has not been a top priority for the German government lately, it continues to bubble along and casts a cloud over U.S.-German ties, arguably the most important bilateral relationship in NATO.