Fierce fighting has continued in eastern Ukraine in the build-up to a key summit in Belarus, bringing together leaders from Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany. Barack Obama spoke with Vladimir Putin ahead of the talks.
Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko are all expected in Minsk later on Wednesday for key talks on the conflict in Ukraine. If the negotiations fail to yield a breakthrough, more EU sanctions against Russia are in the pipeline. The United States is also considering sending equipment to Ukraine's military if no progress is made at the negotiating tale.
Prior to the summit, the White House and Kremlin both reported a telephone conversation between Presidents Putin and Obama.
According to the White House, Obama "underscored the importance of President Putin seizing the opportunity presented by the ongoing discussions between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine to reach a peaceful resolution."
The Kremlin said the two leaders agreed on the need for a political solution to Ukraine's "internal" conflict.
Short-lived report of ceasefire, 'too early'
Negotiators from Ukraine, the separatists in the east, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) laid the groundwork for Wednesday's talks in roughly two hours of negotiations in the Belarusian capital on Tuesday. Despite unsubstantiated reports of a ceasefire deal, purportedly struck on the eve of what was billed as the main event in this latest diplomatic push, it later emerged that much more moderate progress had been made.
Pushilin (right in picture) said he had put new proposals to the Ukrainian government representatives
"It's too early to talk about a ceasefire," said Denis Pushilin, a member of the separatists' delegation. He added that the separatists had put forward proposals for an agreement and were awaiting a response, without disclosing details about the proposals.
Fragile footing for talks, at 'decisive hour'
The negotiations in Belarus coincided with fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday. Clashes were reported in Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Debaltseve. According to officials in Kyiv, its military center in Kramatorsk, far away from the front lines, came under shellfire for the first time. Seven Ukrainian soldiers, seven separatist fighters, and a total of 23 civilians were reported dead around Ukraine during the day.
As fighting continued, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to all involved to exercise restraint as the diplomats worked.
"It wouldn't be the first time that an act of political sabotage, a targeted strike, destroys all hopes of a ceasefire," Steinmeier said. "That's why I hope no party to the fighting pushes things to the point where an explosion of violence calls Minsk into question."
French President Francois Hollande, who surprisingly traveled to the Kremlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week at the start of the new diplomatic push, told reporters in Paris that he was traveling to Minsk with a "strong will" to achieve a peace deal.
"The chancellor and myself will be particularly active until the last moment of this meeting so that there can be a deal, a global settlement," Hollande said.
The unscheduled talks provided Merkel with a hectic travel schedule over the past week, given that she embarked on a scheduled visit to the United States and Canada in between the Ukraine negotiations. In both Washington and Ottawa, Merkel appealed for a diplomatic solution to the conflict, expressing doubt that a military solution existed and calling into question US overtures of supplying weapons to the Ukrainian military.
msh/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters)