U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry watches as Vice President Joe Biden greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel after she arrived at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 7, 2015, to deliver a speech and meet with U.S., Ukrainian, and other government officials.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry watches as Vice President Joe Biden greets German Chancellor Angela Merkel after she arrived at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 7, 2015, to deliver a speech and meet with U.S., Ukrainian, and other government officials. (U.S. State Department)

MUNICH, Germany — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday remained steadfast in her opposition to arming Ukraine, sparking a lively debate at the annual Munich Security Conference with political leaders from other western countries who favor such a move.

Fresh from a round of talks in Kiev and Moscow together with French President Francois Hollande in hopes of achieving a diplomatic solution to the crisis, Merkel argued adamantly against arming the Ukrainian military.

“I cannot envisage any situation in which the improved equipment of the Ukrainian army will convince Putin he will lose militarily,” Merkel said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom she and Hollande met on Friday. “And that is the reality of the day. You have to look reality in the eye.”

That stance drew sharp criticism from other heads of state and political leaders attending the three-day conference, which provides a forum for discussion of a wide range of security issues.

With heavy fighting continuing, even after all sides agreed to a ceasefire in September, and recent territorial gains by the separatists, some Western officials say economic sanctions that have weakened Russia’s economy but failed to change Moscow’s stance on Ukraine are insufficient.

During a question and answer session following Merkel’s speech, Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told the German chancellor it was her country’s resistance to sending in arms that has so far given the White House pause. President Barack Obama has yet to decide on the matter and reportedly shares some of Merkel’s concerns.

“I think most in the U.S. Congress would like to see all of us participate in defensively arming Ukraine,” Corker said.

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves also questioned Merkel’s position, saying Ukrainian troops, armed with weapons from the 1970s and ‘80s, have no chance against separatists who have advanced Russian systems, according to NATO officials.

“The question is, would it be all that different if the weapons of the Ukrainian army were somewhat different,” Merkel said. “I have my doubts.”

From the audience of decision-makers and security experts, the chancellor received a healthy round of applause, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who accuses Russia of not only supplying arms to the separatists but also sending in troops, sat in solemn silence.

In written answers to questions from the German newspaper Die Welt published Thursday, Poroshenko appealed for more NATO support, including “delivery of modern weapons for protection and defense against the aggressor.”

“Ukraine wants peace. But peace has to be defended, and for that we need a strong army with new, modern weapons,” Die Welt quoted Poroshenko as saying.

During a later panel discussion, Poroshenko called for an immediate cease-fire, but repeated his assertion that Ukraine needs arms.

“We are a sovereign country and we have a right to defend our borders, our territory, our people,” Poroshenko said.

Shortly after Merkel’s speech, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-SC, backed Poroshenko’s stance.

While there are risks to sending in lethal arms, Graham said, a better armed Ukrainian military could impose heavier losses on the battlefield for Russian-backed fighters, and force Moscow to rethink its strategy.

Merkel “can’t see how arming people who are willing to fight and die for their freedom makes things better. I do,” Graham said. “I think it will increase the cost of the Russian intervention.”

Russian officials have repeatedly denied they are providing troops and material to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has raged since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March.

Lavrov defended Russia’s actions in Crimea, a region with a majority ethnic Russian population and where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is based.

“What happened in Crimea was an exercise of the right of self-determination,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov’s characterization of events wasn’t well received.

Tweeting live from the Munich hall, Ilves wrote: “I feel badly for smart people forced to say dumb things, to obfuscate and lie to a room full of other very smart people. Must be humiliating.”

Tensions intensified when Graham took the stage alongside Radoslaw Sikorski, a leading political figure in Poland, which also has advocated arming Ukraine, and Russian parliamentarian Konstantin Kosachev.

“There are not troops of Russia in Ukraine,” Kosachev told the audience. “There is no evidence. There are no Russian troops. We have not done anything in Ukraine. This is an internal conflict.”

Graham said such statements should be a sign to Merkel that her position of negotiating with Moscow without arming the Ukrainians is a weak one.

“You’re legitimatizing this garbage and you need to push back,” Graham said. “You (Merkel) can go to Moscow until you are blue in the face. Stand up to what is a lie and clearly a danger.”

While the Obama administration wrestles with whether to send lethal defensive arms to Ukraine, Vice President Joseph Biden on Saturday did not give a clear indication how that decision might play out. But in talking about the need for a political solution, he made clear Ukraine has a right to fight.

“We do not believe there is a military solution in Ukraine,” Biden told the conference. “We also believe the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves.”

“President Putin has to make a simple, stark choice: Get out of Ukraine or face increasing isolation and economic costs at home," Biden said.

Merkel said she would press forward with efforts to bring all sides to the negotiating table, but said she could offer no guarantees of results.

“I say it is uncertain whether they will be crowned a success, but it was well worth our while to make this attempt.”

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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