WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are mounting a display of trans-Atlantic unity against an assertive Russia, even as sanctions imposed by Western allies seem to be doing little to change Vladimir Putin's reasoning on Ukraine.
Days after the United States and the European Union slapped Moscow with a new round of sanctions, Merkel was to hold meetings, a working lunch and a joint news conference with Obama on Friday. The German chancellor comes to the White House buoyed by a decisive re-election victory late last year but facing pressure from all sides as Europe seeks to toe a hard line against Russia on Ukraine without harming its own economic interests.
As the crisis in Ukraine has worsened, Merkel has spoken to Putin, the Russian president, perhaps more frequently than has any other European leader. Because of this, the U.S. sees her as a critical channel of communication with the unpredictable Russian leader, as well as a key player in the effort to prevent other EU nations from going soft on sanctions.
"There's no question that the situation in Ukraine, the continued failure by Russia to abide by its commitments in the Geneva Agreement will be a focus of the conversation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The diplomatic deal struck two weeks ago in Geneva has failed to de-escalate the conflict between pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine and the central government in Kiev. The U.S. and Europe have sharply rebuked Putin for flouting his responsibilities under the deal, and Moscow on Friday declared all hopes for implementing the accord "effectively destroyed."
As if to underscore the fraught situation in Ukraine as Obama and Merkel prepared to meet, Ukraine on Friday launched what appeared to be its first major assault against pro-Russian forces in the country's east. Three deaths were reported in early fighting, which brought down two Ukrainian helicopters.
U.S. and German officials said ahead of the Obama-Merkel meeting that part of the discussion probably would focus on how the U.S. and Europe would coordinate harsher punishments -- including sanctions targeting broad sectors of Russia's economy -- should Moscow further provoke tensions in Ukraine, such as by sending military forces into restive eastern Ukraine. The White House is concerned that Europe's deep economic interests in Russia and dependence on Russian energy could deter EU nations from following through with sanctions that could ricochet onto their own economies.
"She's getting enormous pressure from German industry not to harm their interests," said Heather Conley, a Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "She has to start laying the political groundwork for this because it requires some sacrifice."
Merkel, like Obama, has ruled out military action to deter Putin from seizing more of Ukraine. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has urged Obama to send weapons to Ukraine's government, said he planned to tell Merkel during a private meeting that he was embarrassed but unsurprised by her country's failure of leadership.
"The leaders, they're being governed by the industrial complex of Germany," McCain said Thursday. "They might as well have them in the government. It's shameful."
A troubled EU-U.S. trade agreement, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is also on the agenda, as well as joint efforts to deal with climate change, Syria's civil war and nuclear negotiations with Iran, said Laura Magnuson of the White House's National Security Council.
But the German leader may also be bringing her concerns over U.S. spying programs -- an issue that's continued to erode the U.S.-German relationship despite Obama's assurances that the National Security Agency would stop eavesdropping on Merkel's cellphone. The issue has aggravated German citizens, prompting calls for Berlin to strike some type of agreement with Washington to limit U.S. surveillance on German soil.
Another potential wrinkle: A German parliamentary panel probing the NSA issue is eager to invite former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to speak to the panel. The German government has made clear it opposes the idea of letting Snowden, whose U.S. passport has been revoked, testify in Berlin, drawing criticism from the opposition.
Merkel will also speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Friday, focusing on the fledgling trade agreement and U.S.-European economic ties.