Perhaps the clearest confirmation that two countries are in a spat is when they deny that they are in one. Unity was the message from U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their press conference Monday, but the tensions these erstwhile allies failed to allay can be expected only to intensify as the standoff in Ukraine continues.
According to Obama, Russian aggression has only reinforced the unity between the United States and its allies, which stand together in their belief that borders cannot be drawn at the barrel of the gun. Obama offered as fact Russia's violations of the Minsk agreement, including delivering armor to separatists and directly coordinating separatist offensives. But a rather inconvenient fact remains: Russia has already redrawn the border in Crimea, and it is trying to do likewise in eastern Ukraine, as evidenced by the ongoing operations to squeeze Kiev's troops out of Debaltseve. Russia will not be negotiating a withdrawal; it will be negotiating the recognition of a frozen conflict.
The question, then, is whether the Europeans and the Americans are prepared to negotiate on these terms. Of course, Obama and Merkel both reiterated that they should uphold the principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, but few leaders would openly disagree on that. The challenge lies in which tactics to employ to uphold those principles. By Obama's own admission, that is where the leaders differ.
Though Merkel maintained her belief that sanctions could produce a diplomatic solution, Obama was clear that he still has the option to provide lethal aid to Ukraine if diplomacy failed again. However, he was careful to note that the United States would provide weapons such as Javelin anti-tank missiles to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia-backed separatist aggression, not to defeat the Russian army outright.
Merkel understands that a decision to send weapons could set Europe on a path to war that Berlin would rather avoid. But importantly, she also sees the gray area Obama left in his statement — and she is unnerved by it. If weapons alone cannot really help Ukraine fight Russia, and if Russia is directly involved in the fight in eastern Ukraine, then what could enable Ukraine to fend off Russia? If the deployment of U.S. troops and trainers falls within that gray area, then the conflict is much more likely to intensify than it is to de-escalate. The United States is unlikely to make its decision while the negotiations continue, but Merkel, who still faces the much more pressing challenge of preventing a haphazard Greek exit from the eurozone, is precariously trying to hold back the Americans while trying to reason with the Russians. If another cease-fire attempt falls through, Merkel will struggle to find the unanimity among the Europeans needed to add more severe financial sanctions against Russia. This would leave the United States with the bat, ready to swing.
While Obama defended his relationship with Merkel, he could not do the same for his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama was asked about his apparent outrage over Netanyahu's upcoming address to the U.S. Congress — a visit scheduled for just two weeks ahead of Israeli elections and just three weeks ahead of a March deadline the United States set for itself to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran. The president acknowledged that disagreements remain with Tehran and that there is no reason to rush the threat of new sanctions against Iran. Notably, Obama set the soft March deadline — three months before the original June deadline — to get Congress to hold off on sanctions. This might seem odd, given that the president is denying himself what could be critical negotiating time, having extended the talks twice already. But from the sound of Obama's statement, it appears as though the White House has moved beyond the technical points of the negotiations and is ready to put the onus on Iran to decide whether the talks move forward.
Obama's confidence in the negotiations may stem from his debriefing of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry following his Feb. 6 meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. On the day Kerry and Zarif spoke, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made some unusually positive remarks about the negotiations, saying that he would endorse any agreement that does not run counter to his country's interests. In a veiled message to hardliners challenging the deal, Khamenei went so far as to say, "I am for reaching a good settlement and the Iranian nation too will certainly not oppose any deal to uphold its dignity and integrity." In other words, his word is the final word, and everyone else will fall in line. The coming weeks will be especially important, for they will test the cohesion of the Iranian leadership in what may be the final stages of this nuclear framework.
Clearly, Obama doubts that Merkel will steer Moscow toward de-escalation successfully without applying additional pressure. But at least with Iran, negotiations appear to be pointed in a more favorable direction.