DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine/MOSCOW: The leaders of France and Germany flew to Moscow on Friday in a last-ditch effort to negotiate a peace deal for Ukraine, but expectations of a breakthrough were low after gains on the battlefield by pro-Russian rebels.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande met Russia`s Vladimir Putin on Friday evening, a day after five hours of late-night talks with Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko.
In a sign of the tense atmosphere, the leaders went straight into the Kremlin for talks, without the usual diplomatic niceties of a welcoming handshake for the cameras. They emerged briefly after a 75 minute working dinner for a photo opportunity in an ornate Kremlin hall, before talks resumed.
Before arriving in Russia, Hollande called the talks "the first step", while Merkel said it was unclear whether the meeting in Moscow would secure a ceasefire. Her spokesman said there "was no sign whatsoever" of a breakthrough so far.
An official from a major EU country, who declined to be identified, gave a gloomy prognosis, saying Putin would have little reason to urge the rebels to back down while they are advancing.
"He does not appear to have any incentive to back down now. The separatists are in control and the taking more territory. He can sit back and wait as the pressure steadily builds on Ukraine and its leaders," the official said.
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, a brief truce was organised so trapped civilians could reach safety from Debaltseve, a government-held railway hub nearly encircled by rebel forces who have made it the target of their advance.
Both sides sent convoys of buses, giving residents a choice to evacuate to government or rebel territory. The government buses left full; the rebel buses left mostly empty.
"The last two weeks were hell," said Artem Nikishin, 31, boarding a bus to the government-held town of Slaviansk with his wife and two sons. "This is our property now," he said, pointing to several bags and a parcel wrapped in a blanket.
The Franco-German peace effort is an attempt to restore a ceasefire to a conflict that has killed more than 5,000 people, before European leaders meet next week to discuss imposing new economic sanctions against Russia.
Previous sanctions, coupled with a decline in oil prices, have contributed to a sharp fall in the rouble but seem to have done nothing to deter Putin from his support for the rebels in territory he has dubbed "New Russia".
This week, Washington has begun openly hinting it could arm Ukraine`s military. But its European allies have increasingly spoken out against such a move, arguing it would only escalate the conflict while falling short of giving Ukraine the means to resist an onslaught backed by Moscow.
U.S. General Philip Breedlove, the top military commander in NATO, implied that he favoured sending weapons, telling a security conference in Munich that the West should use "all the tools in the toolbag".
But German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told the same conference: "Are we sure that we would be improving the situation for the people in Ukraine by delivering weapons? Are we really sure that Ukraine can win against the Russian military machine?"
Western countries accuse Putin of sending funds, heavy weapons and troops to back pro-Russian separatists who launched an offensive in January, when a five-month-old truce finally collapsed. Moscow denies assisting the rebels.
Since launching their offensive, the rebels have made major advances. Kiev and its Western allies want any new ceasefire to require the rebels to give up those new gains, but they are unlikely to agree to go back.
A statement on Poroshenko`s website said the sides had expressed the hope that Russia had an interest in a peaceful solution. The leaders called for a quick ceasefire, the withdrawal of foreign forces from Ukraine, the pull-back of heavy weapons and equipment, the closure of the border and the release of all prisoners, it said, all longstanding demands.
For Moscow`s part, Russia`s ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, told Europe 1 radio there was an urgent need to avoid war. "I wouldn`t say it`s a last chance meeting, but it`s not far off," he said.
REDRAWING THE MAP
Germany is hosting major powers this weekend at the international security conference in Munich. Western countries are talking tough.
"This is a moment where the United States and Europe must stand together, stand firm. Russia cannot be allowed to redraw the map of Europe because that`s exactly what they are doing," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in Brussels en route to the conference.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk in Kiev made an undisguised pitch for military help.
"Peace in Europe depends on peace in Ukraine and for us to achieve that peace Ukraine must have the means to defend itself. Not in offensive operations, but in defence operations," he said.
Ukraine wants "lethal" aid such as anti-tank weapons to help it fight the heavy battle tanks it says the rebels have received from Moscow, as well as "non-lethal" equipment like night vision goggles and radar to detect where artillery is fired from.
Reuters journalists who reached the besieged government garrison of Debaltseve with the humanitarian convoys on Friday saw buildings shattered and walls blasted open with shells. Even as the evacuation was taking place, the town`s Ukrainian army defenders kept up regular howitzer and mortar fire at separatists beyond the town`s perimeter.
In the centre, dozens of Ukrainian troops in full battle gear mingled with civilians waiting either to receive humanitarian aid or board the buses out.
A soldier who only used his nickname of "the student" said they were determined to hold Debaltseve.
"We will win this battle. We do not need American weapons... what we need is our fighting spirit. As long as we have it, we will defeat these Russian servants in Donetsk and Putin himself."