MUNICH — A peace proposal for Ukraine edged toward a possible breakthrough as the leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine agreed Sunday to a joint summit alongside representatives of the pro-Moscow separatists who have waged a bloody campaign in the Ukrainian east.
The four leaders agreed to the proposed summit — scheduled for Wednesday in the Belarus capital, Minsk — during a four-way phone call Sunday. The success of the summit, however, still appeared to hinge on further diplomatic talks Monday in Berlin, aimed at laying the groundwork for a “comprehensive settlement” of the crisis in Ukraine, where fighting has steadily worsened.
The German government announced the summit plans on the heels of whirlwind visits last week to Kiev and Moscow by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, who have launched a high-stakes diplomatic push to fend off an escalation of the fighting as well as a growing standoff between the West and Russia. European and U.S. governments have accused Moscow of subterfuge for denying its involvement in Ukraine even as they cite conclusive intelligence indicating both Russian weapons and disguised troops are fighting in Ukraine’s restive east.
The summit details came together, according to Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert, after the phone call Sunday resulted in further “work on a package of measures” aimed at a settlement.
Nevertheless, serious skepticism remained that any deal, if reached, would be adhered to by Moscow and the separatists. A deal reached in Minsk last September, which aimed to create a demilitarized zone and more autonomy for the rebel-held lands was routinely violated before largely breaking down in recent weeks.
Speaking in the Russian resort town of Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a qualified confirmation the summit plans, saying they would go ahead “if, by then, we have agreed upon a number of positions that were a subject of our intense discussions recently.” Those issues appear to include whether the recent land gains made by separatists would be recognized.
The summit plans came as the Ukraine crisis dominated a major security summit in Munich that drew top policymakers from all sides of the conflict. On Sunday here, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) underscored the festering divisions over how to handle the crisis — both with Washington as well as across the Atlantic — by reiterating calls for the West to supply Kiev with defensive arm. A host of Europeans — led by Merkel — have denounced the notion as merely a way to ensure the conflict escalates.
“The question is, how long can Putin sustain a war he tells his people is not happening?” McCain said in a speech he delivered immediately after one by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. “That’s why we must provide defensive arms to Ukraine.”
Yet Kerry seemed to echo Merkel’s comments a day earlier, saying there is no military solution to the fighting.
Speaking just before leaving for Washington, Kerry denied any rift between the United States and Europe over how to respond to Russia’s support of the separatists.
“There is no division. There is no split,” he said in a forum with his counterparts from Germany and France, two countries whose leaders have argued that sending more arms to Ukraine will only escalate the conflict that already has claimed 5,400 lives. “I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are working closely together. We all agree this challenge will not end through military force.”
“I assure you,” he added, “no matter what, we will stand together in support of Ukraine and in defense of the common understanding that international borders must not, cannot be changed by force, in Europe or anywhere else.”
The Obama administration has been reluctant to send lethal weaponry to Kiev, but now it is under pressure from Congress to reverse that policy. McCain, the organizer of bilateral delegation of 15 senators and House members attending the Munich Security Conference, in effect, rebutted Kerry by arguing that the West must help Ukraine defend itself and raise the war’s cost to Putin.
The laborious attempts to forge a deal highlighted what was being portrayed in European capitals as a last-ditch effort to prevent a sharp escalation of hostilities in a conflict raging for months on the eastern fringes of Europe. The new cease-fire proposal, being pushed by Merkel and Hollande, follows the outlines of an agreement reached in September that ultimately crumbled.
Without a speedy resolution, the conflict between Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and the pro-Western government in Kiev appears poised to spread and deepen. According to State Department officials familiar with some details of the new plan, one sticking point is the demarcation line between forces if a cease-fire takes effect. The Ukrainians want it to be the same as agreed to last fall. The pro-Russian rebels want it to reflect the changed realities caused by their latest offensive, said the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks are at a sensitive stage.
The crisis in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are besieged by separatists widely said to be supported and armed by Moscow, is dominating the Munich Security Conference. The conference, which ends Sunday, is fueled with urgency born of fear that a broader expansion of the war is near.
Merkel and Hollande have expended serious political capital launching a bid for a new cease-fire in recent days. The pair flew to Kiev and then Moscow, with Merkel due for talks at the White House on Monday. The leaders of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia are additionally scheduled to hold a conference call Sunday to discuss the peace initiative, which Hollande characterized as a last-ditch effort.
“Because if we are not able to reach, not a compromise but a durable peace accord, we perfectly know the scenario,” he said in an interview with French 2 television. “It has one name. It is called war.”
Vice President Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also expressed cautious support for a face-saving compromise that would have Russia pull back thousands of its soldiers and seal the border. Biden also was openly skeptical that Russia would stick to any deal. “Too many times, President Putin has promised peace and delivered tanks, troops and weapons,” he said.
A bipartisan congressional delegation to the conference of nine Republicans and six Democrats — all of whom favor the United States sending lethal weapons to Ukraine — met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who played down the prospects for peace.
“It’s safe to say he is not overly optimistic about these negotiations,” said McCain, who led the group.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that Ukraine is facing an economic crisis, as well. “Ukraine is on the brink,” he told reporters. “We need to help it with significant financial support, sanctions and arms.”
The conference underscored the wide gulf separating competing narratives offered up by Russia and virtually everybody else.
Officially, Russia continues to deny sending its soldiers into Ukrainian territory, although evidence from Western satellites and eyewitnesses suggests otherwise. In a particularly dramatic display that he said disproves Russia’s claims, Poroshenko held aloft several red passports that he said came from Russian soldiers fighting on Ukrainian soil. He plaintively asked how much “evidence does the world still need to recognize the obvious fact, there is foreign military equipment, Russian military coaches and regular troops” operating in Ukraine.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in turn accused the West of supporting a government in Kiev that he said came to power via a “coup d’etat” as well as anti-Russian and xenophobic paramilitaries.
“Through every step, as the crisis has developed, our American colleagues and the [European Union] under their influence have tried to escalate the situation,” Lavrov said. But few in the audience bought his claims that Russia is not fostering violence in eastern Ukraine. They peppered him with skeptical questions, and Lavrov at one point looked wearily at his wristwatch.
Fear of Moscow’s ambitions was most palpable at the conference among officials from Russia’s smaller neighbors. Asked why, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, answered succinctly: “After Ukraine, we will be next.”
Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Karoun Demirjian in Moscow contributed to this report.