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Obama, Merkel Downplay Disagreement Over Ukraine Aid


There is a divide between the U.S. and Germany over how to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine. President Obama says he'll consider providing lethal aid to Ukraine to defend itself. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she has ruled out such a move, but the two leaders downplayed this disagreement today in a joint news conference at the White House. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Germany and France are leading a diplomatic effort to stop the increasingly deadly conflict in Ukraine. There's a make-or-break meeting scheduled for Wednesday. But so far President Obama admitted diplomacy and sanctions have done little to change Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It has not yet dissuaded Mr. Putin from following the course that he is on.

KEITH: But, through a translator, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they have to keep trying.


CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) Although we have suffered a lot of setbacks, these days we will see whether all sides are ready and willing to come to a negotiated settlement. I've always said I don't see a military solution to this conflict, but we have to put all our efforts in bringing about a diplomatic solution.

KEITH: But Obama and many in Congress are open to going beyond talk and sanctions. An aid to the House Armed Services Committee confirms to NPR that the committee's top Republican and Democrat are drafting a bill to provide defensive weapons to Ukraine. And Obama himself today said providing lethal aid to Ukraine is on the table.


OBAMA: 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's being examined. But I have not made a decision about that yet.

KEITH: Obama said the idea wouldn't be that Ukraine could defeat a determined Russian army, but that U.S. weapons could help Ukraine defend itself against pro-Russian separatists. In the press conference, Merkel tried to send a signal to Putin that the U.S. and Germany are united.


MERKEL: (Through interpreter) You may rest assure that no matter what we decide, the alliance between the United States and Europe will continue to stand.

KEITH: And here's President Obama saying essentially the same thing.


OBAMA: There's going to continue to be a strong, unified response between the United States and Europe. That's not going to change. There may be some areas where there are tactical disagreements. There may not be.

KEITH: On another matter, President Obama subtly got in a dig at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister accepted an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint meeting of Congress, without informing the White House. This speech is widely expected to question the wisdom of the Iran nuclear talks, and it will come just two weeks before the Israeli election. The White House says, because of the proximity to the election, Obama will not meet with Netanyahu when he's in Washington.


OBAMA: 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.

KEITH: Vice President Joe Biden's office says he has a scheduling conflict and will not attend the Netanyahu speech. And some congressional Democrats say they won't either. Obama said disagreement over the speech risks clouding the U.S.-Israel relationship in partisan politics. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.