If the men and women fighting against Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine tuned in to the joint press conference between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday hoping for good news, they were likely disappointed. Not only did the president offer no promise of the defensive weapons that members of Congress have been urging him to send the Ukrainian army, he also conceded very publicly that, if Russia really wanted to, it would have no trouble crushing Ukraine’s military.
“The prospect for a military solution to this problem has always been low,” he said. “Russia obviously has an extraordinarily powerful military and given the length of the Russian border with Ukraine, given the history between Russia and Ukraine, expecting that if Russia is determined that Ukraine can fully rebuff a Russian army has always been unlikely.
“But what we have said is that the international community working together can ratchet up the costs for the violation of the core principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and Russia has paid a significant cost, both for its actions first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine. It has not yet dissuaded Mr. Putin from following the course that he is on but it has created a measurable negative impact on the Russian economy and that will continue.”
Obama spoke between meetings with the German Chancellor, who has been at the forefront of efforts to bring about a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, where the army has been battling to push back rebels who are supported by Russian soldiers and have been provided with advanced equipment.
The Russian government has repeatedly denied that it is supplying men or arms to the conflict. Confronted with Russian identity cards taken from the dead and captured --- and even with social media posts from its soldiers serving in Ukraine – the Kremlin has claimed that any Russian soldiers in Ukraine are there on their vacation time.
On that point, Obama pushed back forcefully Monday.
“It’s clear that they have violated just about every commitment they made in the Minsk agreement,” he said, referring to a failed cease-fire agreement signed in September. “Instead of withdrawing from Ukraine, Russian forces continue to operate there…. Instead of withdrawing its arms, Russia has sent in more tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery…. These are the facts.”
Merkel has been very clear that she is against the idea of supplying additional arms to the Ukrainian military, which the Obama administration has not ruled out.
However, in his remarks Monday, the president did little to indicate whether he will bow to Congressional pressure and arm Ukraine.
“It is true that if in fact diplomacy fails, I have asked my team to look at all options. What other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus?” he said. “And 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.”
Obama said that he would not authorize arming Ukraine without consulting with Merkel and other European leaders. And he, once again, pointed out that a “determined” Russian army would be able to overrun Ukraine if Putin chose to let it.
“It’s not based on the idea that Ukraine could defeat a Russian army that was determined,” he said. “It is rather to see whether or not there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of separatist aggression.”
Merkel and Obama both promised even stronger economic sanctions against Russia if progress is not made in the next few days. Leaders are hoping to convene another peace conference in the Belarussian capital of Minsk on Wednesday, With Obama declaring “we will not relent.”
Driving Russia into economic disaster, however, is not his preferred outcome, the president said.
“We are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded, and contained, and weakened,” Obama said, in a reference to repeated claims by Putin that the West in general and the U.S. in particular want to further reduce Russia’s influence on the geopolitical stage.
“Our preference is for a strong prosperous vibrant confident Russia. They can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges.”
However, he added, in the face of this aggression and these bad decisions, we can’t simply try to talk them out if it. We have to show them that the world is unified in imposing a cost for this aggression and that’s what we are going to continue to do.
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