President Obama said Monday that although he has asked his advisers to look at all options to stop the Russian incursion into Ukraine, he has not yet decided whether to supply the Ukrainian military with lethal weapons and said the U.S. will continue to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the crisis for now.
"Now it is true that if in fact diplomacy fails, what I've asked my team to do is to look at all options, what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin's calculus, 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," Mr. Obama said at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He also sought to dispel the notion that Germany and the U.S. are at odds over the current strategy, saying, "If, in fact, diplomacy fails this week there's going to continue to be a strong unified response between the United State and Europe. That's not going to change."
Pressed by a German reporter over the "red line" Russia would have to cross for the U.S. to give the Ukrainians lethal weapons, Mr. Obama said there is "not going to be any specific point at which I say clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here," but rather he would rely on ongoing analysis and the question of whether an action is more likely to be effective than not.
Merkel, for her part, has repeatedly said that her country will not supply the Ukrainians with lethal weapons and reiterated Monday that she does not believe the conflict can be resolved militarily. Her preference is to continue seeking a diplomatic cease-fire, but did not completely rule out an eventual change in strategy.
"If at a certain point in time one has to say that a success is not possible, even if one puts every effort into it, then the United States and Europe have to sit together and try to explore further possibilities of what one can do," she said through a translator.
Like Mr. Obama, Merkel reaffirmed the strength of the alliance between Europe and the U.S. in spite of the crisis and said they "will continue to be solid, even though on certain issues we may not always agree."
Mr. Obama has come under increasing pressure at home from members of Congress and former diplomatic and national security officials to do so. A bipartisan group of senators held a press conference last week urging him to arm the Ukrainians, and a group of officials that includes former American ambassadors to Ukraine, U.S. Defense Department officials and NATO leaders released a report earlier this month that called for the U.S. government to provide Ukraine with $1 billion in direct military assistance as soon as possible in 2015, followed by another $1 billion in 2016 and 2017.
"My guess is if we don't take this opportunity we could find ourselves down the road a few months from now watching greater Russian military action and wishing we had," one of the officials, Steven Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CBS News last week. While those who favor arming the Ukrainians say they are under no illusions that Ukrainian troops can ever defeat their Russian counterparts, they can make further aggression and escalation so costly for the Russians that they see no choice but to move toward a diplomatic solution.
The press conference covered a variety of topics, including the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, U.S. surveillance programs and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's upcoming address to a joint session of Congress.
Mr. Obama affirmed his commitment to the ongoing talks between a group of six world powers and Iran to curb Iran's nuclear ambition, although he backed away from another extension of the talks and said the issues had been narrowed enough so that it is time for the Iranians to make a decision.
"I don't see a further extension being useful if they have not agreed to the basic formulation," Mr. Obama said.
One of the biggest critics of the talks is Netanyahu, who was invited by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to address a joint session of Congress next month. Mr. Obama will not meet with Netanyahu, citing a precedent that U.S. officials have a longstanding practice of not meeting with foreign leaders so close to their elections. Israel's elections take place on March 17.
"We have a practice of not meeting with leader's right before their elections, two weeks before their elections. As much as I love Angela, if she was two weeks away from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House. And I suspect she wouldn't have asked for one," he said.
Mr. Obama said that Americans should avoid allowing the U.S.-Israel relationship to be "clouded with what could be perceived as partisan politics," a reference to the increasing conflict over Netanyahu's speech, which Boehner arranged without consulting the president. But Mr. Obama also acknowledged that he and Netanyahu "have a very real difference" around the Iran talks.
"It does not make sense to sour the negotiations a month or two before they are going to be completed," the president said. "What's the rush? Unless your view is that it's not possible to get a deal with Iran, and it shouldn't even be tested. And that I cannot agree with because as president of the United States, I am looking at what the options are if we don't get a diplomatic resolution, and those options are narrow and they're not attractive."
A German reporter asked Merkel about the issue of U.S. surveillance. The U.S.-German relationship was damaged in part by allegations that American intelligence groups tapped Merkel's cell phone. Merkel seems to have put the episode behind her, saying that while there are still some differences of opinion, the "sheer dimension of the terrorist threat" has made Germany more aware of the need to work closely with the U.S.
"I as German chancellor wanted to state here very clearly that the institutions of the United States of America have provided us -- still continues to provide us with a lot of very significant, very important information that also ensures our security and we don't want to do without this," she said.
Mr. Obama asked that the German people "give us the benefit of the doubt given our history as opposed to assuming the worst.