A diplomatic full court press is expected Friday as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande fly to Moscow for an emergency meeting with Vladimir Putin over the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine.
The European leaders say they are bringing a fresh proposal to resolve the nearly year-old conflict without breaking up Ukraine – and more critically, which they hope will appeal to all parties.
Ms. Merkel and Mr. Hollande have been tight-lipped about their new plan, which they will discuss with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev before making the one-hour flight to Moscow on Friday. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kiev Thursday on a separate mission, and told journalists that he supports, but will not take part in, the Franco-German initiative.
Russian experts say Moscow's conditions for a permanent settlement have been public since last March, including guarantees that Ukraine will never join NATO, official status for the Russian language, and some sort of "federalization" that will extend autonomy to the rebellious eastern regions.
But that would involve huge concessions from Kiev, since Ukraine has already announced its desire to join NATO, and Mr. Poroshenko has repeatedly rejected any federal model for Ukraine.
The urgency behind this fresh diplomatic push might be related to reports that Russian-backed rebels have made major gains in their efforts to surround the Ukrainian Army in the embattled railway-junction town of Debaltseve. If true, it could spell a military setback for Ukrainian forces on the scale of the defeats of late last summer, which led directly to what is now being termed the "Minsk-1" peace deal and its shaky, four-month cease-fire.
"Why are Merkel and Hollande coming here in such a hurry? Nothing has happened in the past two weeks except a disastrous Ukrainian military defeat," says Vladimir Zharikhin, a pro-Kremlin expert. "At the very least, we're expecting proposals for a new cease-fire. Freezing this conflict has become a critical goal. The situation for civilians in eastern Ukraine is becoming increasingly hard for anyone to ignore."
Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant, says the US threat to provide weapons to Ukrainian forces could be an alternative explanation for the sudden flurry of diplomacy.
"Minsk-1 is dead," he says. "The message being brought to Moscow by French and German leaders is probably that we need a Minsk-2 very fast. Otherwise, if the US becomes involved by sending arms, trainers, and advisers to aid Ukraine, we are on a very slippery slope that leads straight to a major conflict."
"Unless this fighting is arrested by diplomacy, it can spiral out of control. It's not an exaggeration to say we're looking at the possibility of a proxy war between Russia and the US in the heart of Europe. How scary is that?" Mr. Strokan says.
Limits on a peace deal
A grand bargain that would address Russia's terms for long-term settlement over Ukraine will probably not be on the table Friday, Strokan adds.
"A Minsk-2 deal will have to set new lines of demarcation. The rebels have added about 500 square kilometers of territory in the past two weeks, and that's not going to be rolled back. It will have to include a new and hopefully more reliably policed cease-fire agreement. And it will need to include assurances from both sides that there will be no new military offensives. That's critical. If we're ever going to get negotiations for a long-term peace settlement going, the fighting has to stop permanently," he says.
Kiev and the West blame Russia and the rebels for ditching Minsk-1 and taking to the battlefield last month. The Kremlin argues that Kiev never negotiated directly with the rebels about autonomous status for their regions, and used the respite provided by the cease-fire to launch a new military mobilization in preparation for its own planned offensive to retake the rebel territories, probably in the spring.
"Kiev has to stop making war on its own citizens, and decide to opt for a political solution instead. That's when the real chance for peace will appear," says Konstantin Zatullin, director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Kiev is trying to convince everyone that they're being attacked by Russia, but it's increasingly clear to all that this is essentially a civil war."
Even if a deal is reached in Moscow Friday, no one knows whether forces on the ground in eastern Ukraine will accept it. Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko has insisted that the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk "republics" want full independence and not any process of reconciliation with Kiev.
"Moscow has influence over the [rebel] leaders, there's no denying it," says Mr. Zharikhin. "But it's not unlimited influence. Everything depends on what exact proposals are put before them, and there is no clarity about that at this point."