European leaders will meet with their Ukrainian and Russian counterparts in Belarus on Wednesday in another attempt at a peace deal on Ukraine.
The meeting comes as violence continues to escalate in rebel-dominated eastern Ukraine and amid signs European consensus over Russian President Vladimir Putin is crumbling.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande traveled to Moscow for talks with Putin that produced no breakthrough in the nearly year-long conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives, Reuters reported Monday.
But Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said progress had been made and that he was hopeful the meeting in Minsk would lead to a “swift and unconditional ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have stepped up a military offensive in recent weeks, seizing new territory.
At a high-level security conference in Munich over the weekend, Merkel said it was uncertain whether further negotiations would lead to a deal with Putin but argued that all opportunities for a diplomatic solution should be pursued.
She came under sharp criticism from United States senators Lyndsey Graham and John McCain for opposing defensive weapons for the Ukraine army to help it fight the separatists.
“The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we’re sending them blankets and meals,” McCain said in Munich. “Blankets don’t do well against Russian tanks.”
United States Secretary of State John Kerry sought to play down the differences with Europe.
“Will we remain united? The answer is absolutely, positively, unequivocally we are united, we will remain united,” Kerry told the conference on Sunday, describing any differences as tactical rather than strategic.
Members of the Obama administration are also believed to be skeptical about arming Ukraine but the president faces intense pressure from a Republican-led Congress to act.
The Germans believe sending weapons to a depleted Ukraine army would not improve its chances against separatists armed with “unlimited” supplies of Russian military equipment.
They also fear that delivering arms would internationalize the conflict, playing into the hands of Putin, who has painted the crisis as a western plot to weaken Russia.
Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on Monday, when they are expected to endorse an expansion of visa bans and asset freezes to 19 more people, including a Russian deputy defense minister.
Officials say a final decision on tougher sanctions is not expected before the next summit of EU leaders in March.
Describing Putin as a “tyrant”, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told Sky News that the Minsk talks were a last opportunity for the Russian leader to avert crippling new sanctions that would cause “significant damage” to the Russian economy.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on French television, said he feared a “dramatic spiral” in violence if dialogue with Moscow did not succeed.
“It’s a matter of hours and days. The moment that a break in these discussions ends in an impasse, I fear the worst,” he said.
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