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Out Of White House Meeting, Obama And Merkel Emerge United On Russia


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. As fighting escalated in Ukraine today, President Obama welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House. They talked about how to put greater economic pressure on Russia in hopes of forcing Vladimir Putin to change course in Ukraine. Obama and Merkel also discussed surveillance tactics. It's been a source of friction since it was reported that American spies eavesdropped on Merkel's own telephone. NPR's Scott Horsley has more on the meeting.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The United States and the European Union began the week with some economic acupuncture. They hoped by pin-pointing a handful of businesses and individuals in Russia with narrowly targeted sanctions, they might persuade Vladimir Putin to dial back the tension in Ukraine. So far, it hasn't worked. Pro-Russian separatists are still holding European observers hostage. And the fighting in eastern Ukraine has only grown bloodier. So today, President Obama and Chancellor Merkel discussed a broader array of sanctions that would target whole sectors of the Russian economy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The goal is not to punish Russia. The goal is to give them an incentive to choose the better course.

HORSLEY: Up until now, leaders have been reluctant to impose broader sanctions, which would likely take a toll on the global economy as well as Russia's. Obama says that's especially true in Europe which has stronger Russian ties.

OBAMA: I'm sure there has to be extensive consultations. You've got 28 countries and some are more vulnerable than others to potential Russian retaliation. And we have to take those into account. Not every country is going to be in exactly the same place.

HORSLEY: But Obama and Merkel both said today that broader sanctions may become necessary, even if Russia stops short of actually invading Ukraine. Merkel focused on the upcoming Ukrainian election, set for May 25th. Speaking through an interpreter, she said any effort by Russia to interfere with that election could be a trigger for sanctions.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through translator) The 25th of May is not all that far away. Should that not be possible to stabilize the situation, further sanctions will be unavoidable.

HORSLEY: Obama argues the U.S. and Europe have been remarkably unified in their response to Russia so far, and he praised Merkel as one of his closest friends. That friendship was tested last year when documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that American spies had been listening in on Merkel's telephone. Obama says he was pained by that, though he blamed Snowden's disclosure rather than the eavesdropping itself. Obama again offered reassurance that the U.S. doesn't routinely spy on ordinary Germans. He says the U.S. and Germany share the same values and concerns when it comes to surveillance, though Merkel made it clear they haven't come to an accord.

MERKEL: (Through translator) There are differences of opinion on what sort of balance to strike between the intensity of surveillance, of trying to protect the citizens against threats and on the other hand protecting individual privacy and individual freedom.

HORSLEY: Obama took a moment during his news conference with Merkel to talk about some encouraging news on the domestic economy. The Labor Department said today U.S. employers added 288,000 jobs last month. That's the third largest monthly gain since Obama took office.

OBAMA: My top priority is doing everything that we can to create more jobs and opportunity for hard-working families for our economic strength as a source of strength in the world.

HORSLEY: And the U.S. may be strong enough to weather the storm of additional economic sanctions. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.