President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied behind efforts to reach a long-shot diplomatic resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine Monday, but they offered no clear path for how the West would proceed if talks this week fail.
During a joint White House news conference, Obama dangled the prospect that the U.S. could for the first time send anti-tank weapons and other defensive arms to Ukraine. While no decision has been made, the president said he had ordered his team to consider “whether there are additional things we can do to help Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of Russian aggression.”
Merkel staunchly opposes arming Ukraine’s beleaguered military. The German chancellor, who has perhaps the most productive relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, made clear she had not given up on the possibility that diplomatic negotiations could produce an elusive peace plan.
“It has always proved to be right to try again and again to sort such a conflict,” Merkel said through a translator.
The U.S. and Europe have focused on economic sanctions in their punitive actions against Russia. The penalties, along with plummeting oil prices, have caused significant damage to Russia’s economy.
The European Union decided Monday to temporarily hold off on ordering more sanctions on the Russians and Ukrainian separatists while awaiting the outcome of this week’s peace talks.
In eastern Ukraine on Monday, a powerful explosion rocked a chemical plant and set it on fire outside the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. Rebels said government shelling had hit the plant, which lies in the middle of Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
More than 5,300 people have been killed since fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April, according to a United Nations tally. On Monday, Ukraine said about 1,500 Russian troops had crossed the border into Ukraine via rebel-controlled border posts over the weekend, but military spokesman Andriy Lysenko did not provide any proof.