End the war or face tougher sanctions, Merkel tells Putin
Europe's leaders were in last-ditch talks to broker a peace deal in Moscow last night. The talks took place against a tense backdrop with threats from the US to send arms to Kiev.
Fears of a "total war" between Ukraine and Russia have grown as the death toll has risen alarmingly in recent weeks. Some 5,400 people have been killed in the past 10 months.
French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel carried a peace proposal crafted in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Thursday, but details have not been released.
However, before leaving for Moscow sources in Bonn said that Ms Merkel was pessimistic about Mr Putin's willingness to defuse the crisis.
It is understood that Mrs Merkel bluntly informed Mr Putin that Russia faced even tougher actions from Europe unless he agreed to help end the escalating violence that has put the Ukrainian army and economy on its knees. Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande also pressed the Russian leader to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement from last September.
"As the German chancellor, I would never go behind the back of another country, in this case Ukraine, and start questioning its territorial integrity - that is completely ruled out," Ms Merkel said.
Before meeting Mr Putin she also told reporters: "We don't know if we'll be successful today or if further talks will be needed."
In Washington, a spokesman for the Obama administration said that there's little anyone can do to stop pro-Russian separatists from seizing more territory; and in Moscow, policy makers are increasingly coming to the view that the war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions will eventually cede from Ukraine.
"The failure of this mission will bring the whole situation closer to a very dangerous crossroads," Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, said.
"One of the ways from this crossroads will lead to the armament of Ukrainian armed forces by the US, which would bring the whole conflict to a much higher level of escalation."
Heavy fighting has forced more than 1.5 million people to flee their homes, with some 600,000 Ukrainians having sought refuge in neighbouring countries since last February, the United Nations' refugee agency said.
Russian Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov is the highest-profile target of new sanctions due to be formally endorsed by European Union foreign ministers on Monday.
A list of 19 Ukrainian and Russian individuals and nine other entities that will suffer visa bans and asset freezes in the latest EU response to violence by pro-Moscow rebels in Ukraine remains confidential, following an agreement by envoys of the 28 EU governments in Brussels.
However, diplomatic sources said yesterday that Antonov, one of several deputies to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, would be the most senior of five Russians on the list alongside 14 Ukrainian separatists. Some hawkish EU states pushed for sanctions against Shoigu himself.
A truce has allowed civilians to leave Debaltseve, at the heart of the latest fighting in eastern Ukraine. According to the BBC's David Stern, in Kiev, this may not be the last attempt to try to find a peaceful solution to the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, but there is a sense that the door is closing fast.
Earlier this week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the West must see if there was still a chance to reach a settlement, before there was "complete loss of control" over the conflict.
Mr Hollande has also said that diplomacy could not "go on indefinitely".
That Angela Merkel is travelling to Moscow can be seen as a positive sign - the German chancellor said she wouldn't meet the Russian President, with whom she enjoys a good relationship, without the concrete prospect of progress.