President Obama on Monday would not rule out providing Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend itself against pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow.
Amid mounting pressure from Congress to provide weapons to Kiev — but with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at his side, counseling against such aid — Obama said he had asked his team to “look at all the options” that could change Vladimir Putin’s calculus in Ukraine.
Merkel is using her visit to the White House to warn against arming Ukraine, arguing it could lead Russia to escalate violence in Eastern Ukraine, where separatists are fighting Kiev.
Moscow has been accused by the West of sending troops and weapons to the area, something Putin’s government has repeatedly denied.
Obama and Merkel met as Western leaders were struggling to chart out a united response to Russia's continued provocations.
A group of European leaders led by Germany are slated to meet with Putin later this week. They are demanding a cease-fire, the withdrawal of heavy Russian military weaponry and the creation of a demilitarized zone.
The Obama administration has argued that previous agreements with Russia have been repeatedly violated.
Europe is expected to levy additional sanctions and travel bans against top allies of the Russian president if no deal can be reached.
Merkel said the effort was “anything but an assured success” but that she would not be able to live with herself without giving diplomacy a shot.
Obama said it was clear Russia had “violated just about every commitment they made” in a previous agreement reached in Minsk, and that the U.S. would “not relent” in raising the costs for Moscow. He also pledged that if “diplomacy fails this week, there's going to continue to be a strong, unified response.”
A number of Republicans in Congress have called for arming Ukraine, and they have been joined by several Democrats.
Support is also growing within the Obama administration for arming Kiev given recent advances by pro-Russian separatists.
Critics of the sanctions strategy note that despite a cratering economy, Putin has not yielded in his support for pro-Russian rebels.
The split between Washington and Europe has threatened to jeopardize the united front demonstrated by Western leaders in the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for separatists.
There are also concerns that countries like Greece and Hungary, already struggling with the financial ramifications of the sanctions against Russia, may not be supportive of additional economic steps.
A bipartisan congressional delegation met over the weekend with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has called for the additional assistance. And a series of Republican lawmakers over the weekend accused Obama of doing too little to help.
“You know, I’ll tell you, this conference in Munich the last three days has really highlighted the enormous national security threat that are facing America, that are growing and getting worse,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in an appearance on ABC News's “This Week.” “And when it comes to Russia and Ukraine, the path we’re on doesn’t make any sense. We need to be providing defensive arms to the people of Ukraine.”