THE leaders of France and Germany are travelling to Kiev and Moscow with a proposal to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The surprise move by French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel came as the United States edged toward offering Ukraine military aid, something many Europeans oppose.
The flurry of high-level diplomacy is aimed at ending the resurgent fighting in eastern Ukraine now threatening European security. France and Germany hope this time they can come up with a peace deal both Ukraine and Russia can agree on.
Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko called it “a very critical moment in our history” as he welcomed US Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev yesterday.
In Brussels, Nato foreign ministers prepared to boost the military alliance’s forces in response to the fighting in Ukraine and Russia’s increased military forcefulness.
Fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces surged in January, with more than 220 civilians killed in the past three weeks, according to the United Nations.
The UN has sharply criticised both sides for indiscriminate shelling and urged a temporary truce from the fighting that has killed more than 5,300 people since April.
At least three people were killed in overnight shelling in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, local officials said yesterday, amid fierce fighting in several areas of eastern Ukraine.
Mr Hollande said he and Mrs Merkel were going to Kiev and then to Moscow today with a proposal “based on the territorial integrity of Ukraine”.
This will be Mrs Merkel’s first trip to Moscow since Ukraine’s conflict broke out a year ago.
“It will not be said that France and Germany together have not tried everything, undertaken everything, to preserve the peace,” Mr Hollande said.
A senior French government official said the two leaders decided on the double trip and did not consult US officials about the plan.
Mrs Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Siebert said “given the escalation of violence in the past days, the Chancellor and President Hollande are intensifying their months-long efforts for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.” In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that Mr Putin, Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande will discuss “what the three nations can do to help put a quick end to a civil war in south-eastern Ukraine, which has exacerbated in recent days with mounting casualties.”
Russia has vehemently denied allegations of helping the rebels in Ukraine, while acknowledging Russian volunteers are involved in the fighting.
Western military experts say the sheer quantity of heavy weapons in rebel hands belies that claim. Mr Kerry brought $16.4 million (£11m) in new US humanitarian aid to Ukraine.