U.S. unity with Europe vital to pressuring Russia on Ukraine

President Obama and Germany’s leader Angela Merkel showed unity in their support for an end to fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels, but there have been signs of a rift over whether to send arms to the Ukrainian government. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to discuss what the president may do and the relationship between the two leaders.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Margaret Warner joins me now.

    Margaret Warner, the president — or, I should say, Angela Merkel made clear that she wants diplomacy first, and if that doesn't work, then maybe we will talk about what happens next. Did the president give any sign of where he's leaning?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    I think the president — I think what we heard today — first of all, last week, administration officials were saying that this drumroll that he was about the furnish weapons was a little overstated, that he hadn't made up his mind.

    I think, today, even though we heard him make a case for it, we also heard him lay out some of the doubts and dangers, things like the weapons would fall in the wrong hands, it would make the Ukrainian military more aggressive than they can actually sustain. And so he said my measure will be, is it more likely to be effective than not?

    I think the other thing we saw on display today, he is determined to stay united with the Europeans because he thinks that's the only way, whether it's on sanctions or anything else, to keep pressure on Putin, and that is the only option that they have got.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Everything is tied to everything else.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's right.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Was this a matter of courtesy, as much as anything else? Here, she's right here in my White House and I'm not going to disagree with her?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No, I think it's actually strategic and tactical.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The president understands that the minute Vladimir Putin splits the U.S. from the Europeans, the game is over, as far as he is concerned, and she is taking a longer view than he is.

    Her argument is, we have to have strategic patience, we have to keep upping the ante on sanctions and see if at some point that causes him to change his calculus.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, she was more recently in a room with him than Barack Obama was, she and Francois Hollande trying to figure out the middle ground.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Was there any sign — did she indicate or anybody indicate that there was some give on this with Putin?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    That's been a very well-kept secret as to what exactly Merkel and Hollande got out of it.

    But I'm told by U.S. officials that German and French officials said the talks were really tough. Putin showed no give whatsoever. They don't really have any great expectations for this meeting on Wednesday necessarily, but they want to play it out.

    You know, they couldn't really refuse to show up because Putin had sent this new proposal, even though it's so extreme, in the view of the U.S. and the Europeans, that it's a nonstarter. So they showed up. But it wasn't encouraging.

    I asked one U.S. official, well, how do you all read Putin lately? And he said, we are way beyond the point of any competence or confidence on that one.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, what then is the U.S. role in this? You're right. They want to keep him at the table for the potential of Iran negotiations and all of these other related issues, but what does the U.S. see as its role? Does it step back and let Europe take the lead?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    No.

    I think that the U.S. is staying real close to the Europeans. And President Obama is always there to argue that we have to keep the pressure on. And they think actually Merkel agrees with that. It's just a question of how long this timeline is.

    But the U.S. fear or the administration's fear is that the longer — the outcome of the Moscow meeting was Washington's worst nightmare, which is that on the eve of the new sanctions that were going to be opposed by the E.U. today, Putin would come in with some plan and say let's talk and then he would say, let's keep talking.

    And sure enough, the E.U. held back on the new sanctions, and that, meanwhile, the rebels are just gaining more and more and more ground and creating new facts on the ground, and that then Putin will be able to argue, well, the new cease-fire line has to be even bigger and bigger and be beyond the reach of Kiev.

    So I think that the president wants to stay very engaged in this, but they weren't going to tell Merkel and Hollande, when the U.S. pointedly wasn't invited to the meeting, oh, well, you can't go. They had to play it out.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes. What's become of the relationship between president and Angela Merkel? There was a little tension, a little strain after the eavesdropping incident. Was there any evidence of that still?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, I don't think so.

    I think that they both said quite frankly at the end, when the NSA issue was raised, President — both Angela Merkel and President Obama said it had caused some major rifts — and that wasn't their word — between allies, and many allies didn't quite understand.

    Then the president made a very spirited defense, though, of when we're out in cyberspace looking for these terrorists, they want to attack Berlin or New York, and we hope the German public understands that.

    I think you have got two very businesslike people here. And they know they want to do business with one another. And I don't think it's even a cold relationship. I think it's a really quite frank and open one. And the Germans remain very upset about the NSA surveillance.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But they're transactional individuals and have to come to a meeting of the minds.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, exactly, and they actually trust one another, I think.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes, interesting.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Yes.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK, Margaret Warner, thank you.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Always my pleasure.

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