Merkel and Obama meet as arming Ukraine debated
MOSCOW (CNN) — As the deadly violence in Ukraine ramps up, so does the international scramble to find a solution.
President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met to discuss the crisis Monday in Washington, while in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union agreed on new sanctions against pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and their supporters.
In a joint news conference with Merkel, Obama said Russia has “violated just about every commitment” it made in the September Minsk agreement meant to help end the fighting in Ukraine.
But the organization opted to delay implementing the sanctions for a week, to give more opportunity for a negotiated solution to take hold, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini told reporters.
The top priority, she said, “is to improve things on the ground,” where escalating fighting is taking a toll on civilians.
In Washington, Obama and Merkel were expected to discuss proposals to send lethal aid to the Ukrainian military. Merkel says that’s a bad idea.
“The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved with more weapons,” she said. “I have grave doubts about the validity of this point.”
Merkel said she believes that if the West sends weapons to Ukraine, Russia could further step up its involvement in the conflict, possibly introducing its air force into the fight.
But U.S. Sen. John McCain, who supports arming Ukraine, said it’s a “harsh reality” that Russia’s military is supporting pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine.
He said Russian President Vladimir Putin “does not want a diplomatic solution, he wants to dominate Ukraine as well as Russia’s other neighbors.”
The crisis comes nearly a year after Ukrainian officials and the U.S. government accused Russia of flooding Crimea with troops ahead of its widely disputed annexation of the territory in March 2014.
Similar allegations of Russian military involvement have been made about the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk recently saying his forces are fighting not with local militants, but “with the Russian regular army.”
Russian officials have denied the claims, saying the fighting is between what it calls a fascist government in Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists. Last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Russian government would “continue actively facilitating a peaceful settlement” to the conflict.
But some Western leaders continue to slam Putin. On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Putin was acting like a “mid-20th century tyrant.”
Hammond told Sky News that Russia’s behavior was “outrageous and outdated” and warned that Putin will “pay the price for what he is doing in Ukraine.”
Sketchy peace talks
The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France spoke by phone over the weekend and planned a face-to-face meeting Wednesday in Belarus.
But even that gathering, which could be a significant meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, isn’t set in stone.
“We are planning for Wednesday if we succeed in settling the various points that we have discussed so intensively over these last days,” Putin said Sunday.
The big challenge facing Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande is whether they can reach a peace agreement that will stick.
A peace agreement was signed in September in Minsk, Belarus. It called for a drawback of heavy weapons, self-rule in the eastern regions and a buffer zone to be set up along the Russia-Ukraine border.
But the agreement quickly disintegrated, and the violence continued.
The new plan envisions a much broader demilitarized zone to run along the current front lines.
All the while, the crisis in Ukraine, which stemmed from a trade agreement, has killed more than 5,000 people, including many civilians.
At least 224 civilians were killed in the final three weeks of January alone, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said.
Explosion rattles facility in Donetsk
On Sunday, a strong explosion rocked what the website for the city of Donetsk referred to as a chemical goods plant.
However, Dmytro Yarosh, a Ukrainian lawmaker and Right Sector battalion commander, wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian artillery hit a warehouse containing BM-21 GRAD rocket launchers. On Monday, a European diplomat echoed the claim, telling CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh that the facility was probably an arms depot or factory in a separatist-held area of Donetsk.
Buildings in the area were damaged in the Sunday blast, including homes, but no casualties have been reported.
Eduard Basurin, deputy defense minister of the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic, accused Ukraine of carrying out an attack that caused the explosion.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry wouldn’t say if the blast was the result of an attack by its military.
CNN’s Holly Yan reported and wrote from Atlanta, and Matthew Chance reported from Moscow. CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen and journalist Victoria Butenko in Kiev, Ukraine, and CNN’s Radina Gigova in Atlanta, contributed to this report.