The foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine were due to meet in Vienna last night to try to resolve the crisis in eastern Ukraine that has left an estimated 34 dead in a series of clashes this week between government and separatists forces.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and Andriy Deshchytsya, his Ukrainian counterpart, were in the Austrian capital for a Council of Europe meeting whose agenda was dominated by the violence in east Ukraine.
The “working dinner” with other foreign ministers was to be the first time the two have met since 17 April when they helped broker the now shattered Geneva agreement, signed by Russia, the European Union and the United States in the hope of defusing the crisis.
Moscow still refuses to recognise the Ukrainian government despite it having the constitutional support and backing of the parliament in Kiev.
Speaking in Vienna after the Council of Europe meeting, Mr Lavrov ruled out fresh talks in Geneva without the involvement of pro-Russian leaders from eastern Ukraine.
He said: “To convene in this format again, when the opposition to the Kiev regime is absent from the negotiating table, that would hardly add anything.
“Let us not tear Ukraine apart between East and West, and [let us] unite our efforts and help start the dialogue that will lead to the agreeing of practical steps on the implementation of all agreements and declarations.”
Mr Lavrov also said he found it “unusual” that Ukraine planned to go ahead with presidential elections set for 25 May when the “army is deployed against part of the population”.
Critics of Moscow suspect the Kremlin wants to undermine the elections as a way of weakening the government in Kiev.
As an indication of the differences between Moscow and Kiev, Mr Deshchytsya said he would be happy to talk as long as Moscow scrapped its alleged support for separatist rebels and backed the elections.
He said: “If Russia is ready to commit itself to support these elections and to eliminate this threat, and eliminate its support for the extremist elements in Ukraine, we are ready to have such a round of meetings.”
The Vienna talks came as Ukraine tightened its blockade of the rebel-controlled city of Slovyansk, in the east of the country, which has become a focal point for much of the violence. Some 30 rebels and four government soldiers died during heavy fighting on the outskirts of the city on Monday.
The Ukrainian interior ministry said that 800 separatists equipped with armoured vehicles and heavy-calibre weapons had occupied the town centre. So far the army has refrained from trying to storm Slovyansk, but local media reported residents were stocking up on supplies in case of an all-out assault.
As a further sign of the deteriorating situation in eastern Ukraine, the airport in the city of Donetsk cancelled all international flights until further notice. A key city of more than a million, Donetsk plays host to the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which was set up by pro-Russian rebels and now controls a number of buildings in both the town and neighbouring region.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, warned that Ukraine was now just a “few steps” from war.
In a newspaper interview he said that, following the deaths of 46 pro-Russian activists in a fire in the southern port of Odessa on Friday, Ukraine was on the point of full-blown conflict.
He said: “The bloody pictures from Odessa have shown us that we are just a few steps away from a military confrontation.”