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Politics Merkel in U.S., Canada: What’s at stake for Ukraine?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama, middle, meet in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 9, 2015.

HANDOUT/GETTY IMAGES

Seeking to present a common front even as deep divisions lurk over confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine, U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly asserted Monday that they both still hoped for a diplomatic solution.

But even as they jointly agreed that standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin was crucial, the simmering dispute between Washington and key European allies over arming Ukraine dominated their joint news conference at the White House.

Later Monday, after a visit to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, Ms. Merkel said she was leaving North America having won support from both the United States and Canada for her effort to find a peaceful answer to Ukraine's crisis.

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MERKEL IN WASHINGTON

The itinerary: U.S. President Barack Obama met Ms. Merkel on Monday morning at the White House, and they gave a joint press conference shortly after noon.

What they said: "We continue to encourage a diplomatic resolution" in Ukraine, Mr. Obama said at Monday's news conference. "We are in absolute agreement that in the 21st century we cannot stand idly by and allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun." The President also said he backed Ms. Merkel's joint foray – along with French President François Hollande – to meet Mr. Putin on Wednesday in Belarus to relaunch a peace effort based on a ceasefire and buffer zone.

What's on Obama's mind? Under mounting pressure, Mr. Obama has openly mused about sending lethal weapons – such as anti-tank missiles – to the embattled and overmatched Ukrainian forces that have steadily lost ground to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Obama's choice for defence secretary, Ashton Carter, increasingly favours a tougher approach. Views in Washington are hardening and many see the Franco-German peace effort as pointless in the face of Russian aggression. "The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals," Republican Senator John McCain said at a security conference in Munich over the weekend. "Blankets don't do well against Russian tanks."

What's on Merkel's mind? The German Chancellor has rejected arming the Ukrainian forces. "I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily," she said before arriving in Washington.

(Analysis: A divided Western front plays into Putin's endgame)

MERKEL IN OTTAWA

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What they said: Mr. Harper lauded Ms. Merkel with praise, calling her "a woman of great vision," but did not appear to take the option of joining the U.S. initiative off the table. "Obviously, we'll look at all options. But obviously we'll proceed extremely cautiously in partnership and collaboration with all of our allies."

What's on Harper's mind? Mr. Harper was eager to get an update from Ms. Merkel on the Ukraine-Russia standoff, The Canadian Press reported ahead of Monday's meeting, citing a senior government source. Like the United States, Canada has so far provided only non-lethal supplies to the Ukrainian army, a position that Defence Minister Rob Nicholson reaffirmed on Thursday. However, Mr. Harper has taken a harder line toward Mr. Putin than his fellow G7 leaders; in November, he famously told the Russian leader to "get out of Ukraine" at a G20 meeting in Australia.

What's on Merkel's mind? Ms. Merkel may have wanted to gauge Mr. Harper's interest in sending ceasefire monitors into Ukraine, says Fen Hampson, director of the global security and politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. "If there is a ceasefire, one of the questions is how you're going to monitor it… So there might well be an ask for a Canadian contribution on the table, particularly if it's done under OSCE auspices."

(More: Harper and Merkel to discuss trade, Ukraine and Greece)

MEANWHILE, IN EUROPE

While Ms. Merkel was in North America, the European Union bought some time for the Franco-German peace plan by dialling down the implementation of new sanctions.

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EU foreign ministers adopted asset freezes and visa bans on 19 Ukrainian separatists and Russians and nine organizations, but said they would not take effect until Feb. 16.

"The principle of these sanctions remains but the implementation will depend on results on the ground," Mr. Fabius said. "We will see by Monday and see how the meeting in Minsk went."

(More: EU foreign ministers buy time for peace plan)

MEANWHILE, IN MOSCOW

When asked Monday about media speculation that Ms. Merkel had issued Mr. Putin an ultimatum at talks on arranging a summit on Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "Nobody has ever talked to the president in the tone of an ultimatum – and could not do so even if they wanted to."

NEXT, ON TO MINSK

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Wednesday's meeting in the Belarussian capital will bring together Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders to try to broker a peace deal for Ukraine.

At Monday's news conference, Ms. Merkel acknowledged the possibility that the talks might fail. "if at a certain point in time one has to say that success is not possible, even if one puts every effort into it, then the United States and Europe have to sit together and try and explore further possibilities of what one can do." she said.

With reports from Reuters, The Canadian Press, Associated Press, Kim Mackrael and Mark MacKinnon

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