Now that the situation in eastern Ukraine has escalated, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are on a diplomatic mission to Kyiv and Moscow. It's the last chance to keep the peace in Europe, says DW's Bernd Johann.
The path Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are now treading to try to end the war in eastern Ukraine will not be easy. So far, all diplomatic initiatives have failed. And the outcome of the new mission is far from certain.
Yet the German chancellor and the French president have now brought their entire political weight to bear. They know there is a great deal at stake - because this war could still become far, far worse if they do not manage to halt the cycle of violence.
The lives of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine are currently in serious danger. The inhabitants of the small town of Debaltseve are caught in the crossfire. Thousands of civilians, along with thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, could become trapped by the separatists. Europe could face a huge bloodbath on a scale it has not experienced since the Bosnian war. And it is also clear that if the conflict escalates and spreads to more parts of Ukraine, the dramatic consequences would be felt throughout Europe.
Peace in Europe under threat
The European order that has maintained peace is in danger. Exactly 70 years after the Yalta Conference, which created new boundaries and spheres of influence in Europe at the end of the Second World War, Moscow's imperialist policy is again drawing dividing lines across the continent. That's something no one in Europe can want.
In confidential and separate talks with Merkel and Hollande, the presidents of Ukraine and Russia have been searching for a way out.
Kyiv and Moscow are only the initial stages of these efforts. At the Munich Security Conference this weekend and during Merkel's visit with US President Barack Obama in the coming week, the struggle for peace will continue.
But Merkel and Hollande's talks in Kyiv and Moscow could perhaps have been the crucial first step toward peace. Ukraine is in dire need of help. It cannot win the war militarily and is therefore dependent on diplomatic mediation. But it cannot be blackmailed when it comes to its sovereignty.
Whether Putin can be impressed by the French and German leaders' visit remains to be seen. But the Kremlin strongman must be pleased that Merkel and Hollande have sought his help after the West in recent months froze almost all political contacts with him.
Merkel and Hollande evidently have a peace plan, one that has yet to be made public. Reports suggest it calls for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine to be respected. The fact that this, in a Europe of free nations in the 21st century, must once again be a goal of negotiations, is the real scandal - along with the success that Putin has already achieved.
And if the mission fails?
But is also certain that if this new peace initiative fails, Europe will have to answer difficult questions. In the US, the debate on arms supplies to Ukraine has already begun.
Without military support, the Ukrainians cannot stop the advance of the separatists. But sales of lethal arms would further fuel the conflict. And what Europe would do if the separatists marched into Kyiv with Russian assistance?
That moment has not yet arrived. The war can still be stopped. But it is quite possible that Merkel and Hollande's initiative is the last chance to prevent an all-out war in Europe.