Russian, Ukrainian leaders plan to meet as more civilians die

Story highlights

  • Russian, Ukrainian, German and French leaders plan to meet in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday
  • The U.N. says Hundreds of civilians have been killed this year in the Ukraine crisis

Kiev, Ukraine (CNN)Amid renewed violence in eastern Ukraine, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France planned a face-to-face meeting in Belarus on Wednesday.

The gathering of the four presidents, who have been talking for days on the phone or through diplomatic channels, is a significant development, as the heads of state would not want to walk away from such a gathering empty-handed.
    A spokesman for the German government told CNN that "all sides have agreed" to the meeting.
    But an attempt to gather these four leaders in January fell through after negotiations failed to reap agreements before the meeting date.
    Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday, speaking with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, hinted that Wednesday's announced meeting might not be a done deal.
    Putin confirmed that he spoke with his counterparts in Ukraine, Germany and France, but he added that the meeting will happen "if we succeed in settling the various points that we have discussed so intensively over these last days."
    So there is uncertainty about this meeting happening, but given the serious worsening of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Germans feel it is worth a try.
    The big challenge facing Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande is whether they can reach a peace agreement that will stick.
    A peace agreement was signed in September -- also in Minsk, Belarus -- that envisaged a ceasefire and the creation of a buffer zone between the warring sides, as well as constitutional changes. However, it quickly crumbled amid continued fighting.
    Western leaders and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of providing weapons and training to the pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They have also accused Russia of sending troops to the border to fight.
    Russia has denied the allegations.
    But some Western leaders continue to strongly hit at Putin. On Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Putin was acting like a "mid-20th century tyrant."
    Speaking to Sky News, Hammond said Russia's behavior was "outrageous and outdated" and warned that Putin will "pay the price for what he is doing in Ukraine."
    All the while, the conflict -- which actually stemmed from a trade agreement -- has killed more than 5,000 people.

    Incessant violence

    Over the past day, shelling killed eight civilians in Ukraine's Donetsk region, a rebel official told reporters Sunday.
    At least 17 other civilians were injured in the shelling, said Eduard Basurin, the self-declared deputy defense minister of the rebel group Donetsk People's Republic.
    Civilians increasingly are falling victim to the violence in Ukraine, with at least 224 killed and more than 540 injured in just the final three weeks of January, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
    Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces killed 70 insurgents and a eliminated a number of tanks, artillery and rockets over the past day, a military spokesman said Sunday.
    But 12 Ukrainian soldiers were also killed, and another 24 were wounded by pro-Russian forces who shelled the town of Debaltseve, Col. Andriy Lysenko said in Kiev.

    Western split on weapons?

    Some U.S. officials are considering sending lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.
    "Asserting that there is no military solution -- which is a truism -- should not lead us to believe that there is no military dimension to the problem or that hard power can play no role in a favorable solution," U.S. Sen. John McCain said Sunday.
    "Putin does not want a diplomatic solution, he wants to dominate Ukraine as well as Russia's other neighbors," McCain added, calling Russia's military backing of rebels "a harsh reality."
    But some Europeans, such as Merkel, have concerns about arming Ukrainian fighters.
    "The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved with more weapons," she said. "I have grave doubts about the validity of this point."
    Merkel said she believes that if the West provides lethal aid to Ukraine, then Russia could up the battle -- and possibly introduce its air force into the fight.
    But on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States and Europe are united in their diplomatic efforts.
    "Let me assure everyone there is no division, there is no split," he said at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
    He reiterated that there is no military solution to the crisis with separatists in eastern Ukraine, and that borders should not be changed by force.
    "But the longer that it takes," Kerry warned, "the more the off-ramps are avoided, (and) the more we will be forced to raise the costs on Russia and its proxies."