German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that prospects for peace in Ukraine remain clouded after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and warned that tension between Moscow and the West could spiral out of control if diplomacy fails.
Merkel spoke in Munich on February 7, at a security conference dominated by concerns about a conflict between government forces and Russian-backed rebels that has killed more than 5,350 people in eastern Ukraine since April.
"Nobody is interested in a renewed split of Europe. And much less in a confrontation with the risk of an uncontrollable escalation," Merkel said. "We want to establish security in Europe with Russia, not against Russia."
Merkel had returned hours earlier from Moscow, where she and Hollande presented a peace proposal to Putin at late-night talks on February 6 after discussing it with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv on February 5.
"After the talks yesterday in Moscow that the French president and I had, it is uncertain if it will succeed," Merkel said. "But it is in my view and the French president's view definitely worth trying. We owe it to the people affected in Ukraine, at the very least."
She said that "Russia must contribute its share" and called for "substantial steps forward which would help implement" a deal on a cease-fire and steps toward peace that was signed in September in the Belarusian capital, Minsk.
Hollande, speaking in France, said the Franco-German initiative was "one of the last chances" for peace.
"If we don't manage to find not just a compromise but a lasting peace agreement, we know perfectly well what the scenario will be. It has a name, it's called war," Hollande said.
Poroshenko, asked shortly after his arrival in Munich whether the proposal could work, said, "Yes."
Merkel, Poroshenko, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held talks later on February 7 on the sidelines of the conference.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in the spotlight as Putin's highest representative in Munich, said there was a good chance that the fresh diplomatic efforts could produce agreement on a peace plan, but accused the West of encouraging Kyiv to seek to subdue the separatists by force.
"We believe there is every possibility that we will reach a result and agree on recommendations that will allow the sides to really untie this knot of a conflict," Lavrov said.
Lavrov cast the conflict in Ukraine as the result of a Western push to preserve global dominance following the Soviet Union's collapse and asserted that the United States had taken steps that have led to escalation at every stage of the Ukraine crisis -- an accusation that has also been leveled against Moscow.
"The structure of Europeansecurity...has long been undermined by the actions of the United States and its allies," Lavrov said.
Merkel and Hollande had left Moscow without speaking publicly and few details were given about the content of the negotiations in the Kremlin, a big diplomatic push to end a conflict that is creating a humanitarian disaster and ratcheting up tension between Russia and the West.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the leaders had agreed to continue working towards a possible joint document on implementing the Minsk agreement.
He said Putin, Merkel, Hollande, and Poroshenko would hold discussions by phone on February 8.
Peskov said the document would include proposals from Poroshenko and "proposals formulated and added today" by Putin.
Putin Proposals 'Unacceptable'
NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said in Munich on February 7 that proposals Putin had made recently were "completely unacceptable."
Little has been said officially about proposals the Kremlin said Putin had sent in a letter to Poroshenko in mid-January, but reports and diplomats have suggested he called for the rebels to retain control over territory they have seized beyond separation lines set under the Minsk agreement in September.
In an interview with France 2 television on February 7, Hollande said the plan under negotiation would establish a demilitarized zone of 50 to 70 kilometers -- broader than a similar zone called for in the Minsk agreement -- and "rather strong" autonomy for eastern Ukraine.
Russia says Ukraine should keep its current borders -- with the exception of Crimea, which it illegally annexed in March -- but has made clear it wants the rebel-held territories to be free to run their own affairs with a minimum of control from Kyiv.
The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said last month that Putin's proposals were "a Russian occupation plan" that would "seek to legitimize territorial gains" made by the separatists.
Following the talks between Merkel, Hollande, and Putin, the United States suggested it saw little sign of a shift in the conduct of the Kremlin, which Western governments are calling on to abandon support for separatists they say Moscow has armed, advised, and reinforced with Russian soldiers.
"I'm not going to say it's a positive sign that they're listening," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said of Russia. "They've been listening. They just haven't been acting."
Harf said that "the problem isn't that there aren't enough diplomatic possibilities, it is that Russia hasn't taken any of them and hasn't lived up to its commitments."
The separatists have seized control of hundreds of square kilometers of land since the September deal and have made gains in the past month, as fighting has escalation in what the United States calls a "Russian-backed offensive."
Hundreds of civilians have been killed since the New Year and many others driven from their homes in midwinter, particularly around Debaltseve, the site of persistent attacks on a government-held pocket straddling a key road junction between the separatist-controlled provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Arms For Ukraine?
Breedlove said that the West should not rule out the military option in Ukraine, adding that he was referring to the possibility of helping Ukraine with weapons and equipment rather than sending in soldiers.
"I don't think we should preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option," Breedlove told reporters in Munich when asked whether he backed supplying defensive weapons to the Ukrainian Army.
But he said, "There is no conversation about boots on the ground."
Russia has said a decision by the United States to arm Kyiv would cause "colossal damage" to ties between Moscow and Washington.
The United States has so far sent only nonlethal military supplies to Ukraine, but Secretary of State John Kerry said on February 5 that President Barack Obama would decide "soon" whether to send lethal weapons.
Lavrov reiterated Russia's warnings against it, pointing to what he said were growing calls in the West to "pump Ukraine full of lethal weapons."
"This position will only exacerbate the tragedy of Ukraine," Lavrov said.
Several European governments have said they will not arm Ukraine and questioned whether the United States should do so.
"I understand the debate but I believe that more weapons will not lead to the progress Ukraine needs. I really doubt that," Merkel said at the Munich Security Conference.
"The number of arms is big in the region and it has not led to a situation in which I see a solution," she said.
Merkel said she believed "our strength lies in economic pressure," referring in part to sanctions the European Union and United States have imposed on Russia over its seizure of control over Ukraine's Crimea region in March and its support for the separatists.
Those actions, which came after a Moscow-backed Ukrainian president fled Kyiv following months of protests over his decision to scrap plans for a landmark agreement with the EU, has sparked the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the Cold War.
Russia calls it a domestic "civil war" and denies sending troops or weapons to Ukraine despite what Kyiv and the West say is incontrovertible evidence of its direct military involvement.
Kyiv and Western governments believe Russia wants to weaken Ukraine and keep it out of NATO by maintaining a "frozen conflict" in the east for years to come, and fear Putin could support a rebel push to seize a swath of territory stretching from Donetsk to Crimea.
"Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe, because that's exactly what they are doing," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in Brussels before heading to Munich.
He urged Europe and the United States to "stand together."
On February 6, a brief, localized truce was organized so that trapped civilians could reach safety from Debaltseve.
Both sides sent convoys of buses, giving residents a choice to evacuate to government or rebel territory.
The government buses left full; the rebel buses left mostly empty.
The Ukrainian military said rebel attacks resumed after the cease-fire, targeting positions around Debaltseve with rockets and mortars several times overnight and unleashing at least 29 attacks or artillery barrages across eastern Ukraine.
Military spokesman Volodymyr Polyoviy said on February 7 that the separatists had stepped up shelling of government forces on all the front lines and appeared to be amassing forces for new offensives on Debaltseve and the strategic Azov Sea coastal city of Mariupol.
He said five Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 26 wounded in fighting in the previous 24 hours.