The leaders of Germany and France will present a new peace proposal to the Russian president in Moscow on Friday aimed at ending an escalation in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande will meet with President Vladimir Putin in the Russian capital a day after meeting in Kyiv with Ukraine's Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko.
Ahead of Friday's meeting, Merkel said the initiative that she and Hollande are presenting in Moscow is aimed at defending "European peace." She said the two leaders are doing everything in their power to "end the bloodshed" in Ukraine.
"We are convinced that there will be no military solution to this conflict. But we also know that the question remains fully open whether we will succeed in achieving a ceasefire through these talks," Merkel said. "We do not know if we will be successful today or if perhaps further talks will be necessary. ... We can only do what it is in our power to do – the situation is fluid – and try to contribute all we can to a solution to this conflict, and particularly to bringing the bloodshed to an end.''
Hollande on Thursday called the proposal "a new solution to the conflict, based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine." Poroshenko said the plan "raised hopes" for a cease-fire.
Diplomats meet in Munich
Diplomatic efforts on the Ukraine crisis also are taking place in Munich, site of a three-day security conference that begins Friday. Top world leaders, diplomats and defense officials are expected at the conference, including Poroshenko, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
In Brussels Friday, Biden accused Russia of continuing to escalate the conflict in Ukraine "by sending in mercenaries and tanks."
"Ukraine is fighting for the very survival now," Biden told reporters at a joint press briefing with President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. "This is the moment the U.S. and Europe must stand together. Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe, because that's exactly what they are doing."
Also Friday, pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian officials agreed to a temporary truce that allows for a humanitarian corridor so civilians can be evacuated from battle-scarred areas in eastern Ukraine. Convoys of buses converged Friday on the town of Debaltseve, where the population has been trapped in the crossfire of fierce fighting.
US diplomatic efforts
Earlier Thursday in Kyiv, Kerry blamed pro-Russian separatists and the Kremlin for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, saying Putin "can make the choices that could end this war."
Kerry spoke after talks with the president. "We want a diplomatic resolution," he said. "But we can not close our eyes to the tanks that are crossing the [Russian] border coming into Ukraine."
Russia has repeatedly denied direct involvement in the 10-month rebellion, which has claimed nearly 5,400 lives.
Ahead of his meeting with Kerry, Ukraine's president told Germany's Die Welt newspaper the recent upsurge in fighting should move NATO to provide Ukraine with more support, including modern weapons.
"We still need a lot of military, technical, and specialist help to improve the fighting strength of the Ukrainian army," Poroshenko said in the interview. The Obama administration is evaluating those proposals, but has so far stopped short of providing Kyiv with lethal aid.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Thursday that reports Washington may provide Kyiv with "modern lethal weapons" are a cause for "serious concern." Such a move, he said, would not only worsen the situation in eastern Ukraine, but "threaten the security of Russia, whose territory has been subjected to repeated attacks from the Ukrainian side."
He added that such a decision "may cause enormous damage to U.S.-Russian relations," especially if residents of eastern Ukraine are killed by American weapons.
Putin holds emergency meeting
In Moscow, the Kremlin reported Putin held an emergency meeting of his advisory Security Council to discuss the Ukraine situation, in light of Friday's meeting with Merkel and Hollande.
Fighting in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine surged after last week's breakdown of the latest round of peace talks aimed at ending the rebellion.
Watch related report from VOA's Carla Babb: