WASHINGTON/DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) – US President Barack Obama signaled on Monday he will wait for the results of high-stakes talks on Ukraine before deciding whether to arm the Kiev government, saying diplomacy and sanctions remain his preferred tools to resolve the crisis.
Obama, at a White House news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said providing weapons to Ukraine was among the options he and his advisors were considering.
But he made clear he had reservations about upping the ante in Ukraine and endangering US-European unity in the contest of wills with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Merkel opposes sending weapons to Kiev to help it fight Russian-backed separatists.
“It is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” Obama said. “But I have not made a decision about that yet.”
Despite prompting by a German reporter, the US president pointedly declined to lay down a ‘red line’ that, should Putin cross it, would prompt him to authorise weapons for Ukraine.
In the face of a new offensive by separatists in eastern Ukraine, some of Obama’s top advisors, as well as hawkish US lawmakers, are pressing him to do more to help the Ukrainian government defend itself.
But that question has been overshadowed, at least temporarily, by a revived diplomatic push led by Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. The two are due to meet with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Belarus on Wednesday.
Obama has long been sceptical of arming proxies in places such as Syria and Ukraine, and “has not said anything … to suggest he’s moved on this issue,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Kuchins said that if the latest diplomatic effort fails, “then it will be incumbent on the administration to do something in response,” such as increasing sanctions on Russia or considering arming Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union say Russia has violated a September peace deal by sending more tanks and artillery into eastern Ukraine.
European Union ministers held off tightening sanctions on Monday to give the latest talks a chance.
Obama said he and Merkel had agreed sanctions must stay for now and Moscow’s isolation would worsen if it continued on its current course.
With the previous peace deal having failed, Merkel made it clear she was not predicting success for the latest talks.