The four leaders met in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, as heavy fighting between government forces and Moscow-backed rebels cast a shadow over their efforts to resolve the conflict that has become Europe’s biggest security crisis in decades.
Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, warned as he prepared for the summit that there is either a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine or “the situation goes out of control”.
Fighting escalated in the hours leading up to the summit as rebels apparently sought to make territorial gains in order to strengthen their bargaining position.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said yesterday that 19 soldiers died on Tuesday in combat for the bitterly contested and strategic town of Debaltseve, which is now almost besieged by separatists.
Eleven civilians were killed in an artillery attack on government-held territory, while civilian deaths were also reported in the rebel-held city of Donetsk yesterday.
Kiev accuses Russia of orchestrating the war in eastern Ukraine as part of a policy to destabilise and weaken the country, but the Kremlin rejects these accusations and claims the war is instead a civil conflict.
Faced with a widening and worsening security situation, the leaders meeting in Minsk last night hoped to agree on a peace plan that at the very least will silence the guns, if not provide a long-term political solution.
“It is something that is going to be a turning point for good or for bad… if tonight in Minsk we manage to reach an agreement,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said ahead of the meeting.
Before the summit, president Barack Obama, who has stressed his support for diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict while also raising the prospect of supplying arms to Ukraine, called Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, to encourage him to support any peace plan.
“President Obama underscored the rising human toll of the fighting and underscored the importance of president Putin seizing the opportunity presented by the ongoing discussions between Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine to reach a peaceful resolution,” the White House said.
“If Russia continues its aggressive actions in Ukraine, including by sending troops, weapons and financing to support the separatists, the costs for Russia will rise.”
Ukraine wants the withdrawal of all foreign forces and the restoration of government control over rebel-controlled territory, although it is prepared to grant it some form of autonomy.
The Moscow-backed rebels want separation from Ukraine, and will probably be unwilling to countenance handing over hard-won territory or their weapons to Kiev.
Russia struck an upbeat note ahead of the summit. A diplomatic source said it was “70 per cent likely” that an agreement would be reached.