U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says President Barack Obama will decide “soon” whether to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine to help it fight a Russian-backed military offensive by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kerry made the remark after talks in Kyiv on February 5 with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Earlier in the day, after meeting Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Kerry placed the onus on Moscow to end the war that has killed more than 5,350 people since April.
Kerry said Washington wants a peaceful solution but "cannot close our eyes to Russian tanks crossing the border" into Ukraine.
He said: "Russia's continued aggression in the east" is the gravest threat facing Ukraine today.
Kerry demanded the immediate implementation of a September cease-fire deal and the withdrawal of all Russian troops and weaponry from Ukrainian territory.
He also said Moscow must "respect the international border" between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko (left) greets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry prior to their meeting in Kyiv on February 5.
He said those actions are the only way to stop the conflict and end Russia's "international isolation" -- referring to sanctions and other measures imposed by Western governments in response to Moscow's illegal annexation of Crimea in March and its support for separatists who have seized parts of eastern Ukraine.
Yatsenyuk mocked Russian President Vladimir Putin for denying his troops fighting in eastern Ukraine, saying Russia is “the only country denying Russian military boots are on the ground” there.
Yatsenyuk said Putin can “use my glasses if he needs” them.
Meanwhile, the leaders of France and Germany were meeting with Poroshenko in Kyiv on February 5 to discuss what French President Francois Hollande has called a "new proposal" for peace amid a bloody escalation of fighting.
After Kyiv, Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel plan to go on to Moscow for talks with Putin on February 6.
Kerry said Putin should recognize "that there is a diplomatic solution that is staring everybody in the face.”
He said that the United States is not playing a "zero-sum game" aimed at weakening Russia, as Putin has alleged, and added that the tense confrontation between East and West over Ukraine is "about the rule of law" and "fundamental respect for the integrity, the sovereignty of Ukraine."
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Poroshenko said Ukraine is facing a "growing escalation of violence by terrorists directly supported by Moscow" and thanked the United States for its support.
In Brussels, NATO defense ministers discussed plans to bolster defenses on the alliance's eastern flank in what Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said was a response to "aggressive actions" by Russia.
After talks, Stoltenberg said NATO agreed to immediately set up six bases in Eastern Europe and establish a spearhead force of 5,000 troops.
Stoltenberg, speaking at a news conference, said France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland, and Britain agreed to take the lead in forming the spearhead force.
The force would be available to deploy within two to seven days in a crisis, Stoltenberg said.
"We have decided on the immediate establishment of the first six multinational command and control units in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania," he said.
The spearhead force will be backed up by two more brigades in order to keep reinforcements coming in a crisis.
In total, the NATO response force will be increased to 30,000 troops from the current number of 13,000.
Diplomats speaking on condition of anonymity said that EU ambassadors, also meeting in Brussels, decided to impose visa bans and assets freezes on an additional nine entities and 19 individuals -- including Russian officials and separatists -- over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine.
They said the sanctions would be approved by EU foreign ministers on February 9, and that those affected did not include top Russian officials.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Putin would meet with the French and German leaders on February 6 and said they would discuss "the fastest possible end to the civil war in southeastern Ukraine."
A woman and a child look through a bus window before being evacuated from Debaltseve.
Foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov said Putin was ready to hold constructive talks with Merkel and Hollande and that Russia regrets Kerry was not planning to join the talks.
Ushakov said Russia hopes Germany and France will take measures proposed by Putin into account, apparently referring to a proposal he made last month.
U.S. officials have dismissed those proposals, saying they seek to legitimize rebel territorial gains and are little more than a blueprint for military occupation.
Separatists hold much of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which border Russia, and have been trying to seize more territory in recent weeks with what the United States has called a "Russian-backed offensive."
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP