WASHINGTON -- President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are trying for a public display of unity despite a potential split over arming Ukrainian fighters to better battle Russian-backed separatists.
That was the unstated point of Monday's meeting at the White House, where Merkel was to brief Mr. 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 Mr. 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 was keen Sunday to dispel the notion of a trans-Atlantic rift, saying U.S. and its European allies are "united in our diplomacy" on Ukraine. Speaking at an international security conference in Munich, he said the U.S. supports the efforts by France and Germany.
"There is no division, there is no split," Kerry said. "I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are united, we are working closely together."
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking alongside Kerry, said he considers delivering weapons "not just highly risky but counterproductive."
But Republican Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, insisted in Munich that "we must provide defensive arms to Ukraine."
"If we help Ukrainians increase the military cost to the Russian forces that have invaded their country, how long can Putin sustain a war that he tells his people is not happening?"
Aside from the military cost, Russia has also been struggling with the economic impact of western sanctions and low global oil prices.
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, and the bloodshed has markedly increased over the past two weeks.