Emergency negotiations in Moscow and Kiev — billed as "one of the last chances" to avoid all-out war — appear increasingly unlikely to lead to an agreement between Ukraine, its Western allies, and Russia over how to end the mounting violence in Ukraine's Donbas region.
Speaking Saturday at the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said attempts to negotiate an eleventh-hour peace deal were "definitely worth trying," though success appeared "uncertain."
Russian media outlets have reported that the proposed deal included further land concessions by Ukraine based on losses of around 200 square miles of territory to separatist forces since the last "peace deal" was signed in Minsk on September 5. The reports also noted the possibility of an expanded demilitarized zone of 60 to 70 kilometers along the frontline.
French President Francois Hollande, who was present at the talks in Kiev and Moscow, mentioned the demilitarized zone in remarks to public national television channel France 2, and also said the proposal entailed "strong autonomy" for the eastern regions.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Saturday that Ukraine was "ready for a comprehensive and immediate ceasefire," and that Russia should be too. However, the president also emphasized that the conflict "must be solved, not frozen."
In one of her most strongly worded statements so far on Ukraine, Merkel talked in Munich of attempts to "change Europe's borders by force," yet also insisted that despite previous experiences of negotiating with Moscow being "not good" and "disillusioning," there could be "no military solution to the conflict."
Merkel also said she could not envision a situation "where more equipment for Ukraine will convince Putin that he will lose militarily."
Western support to Ukraine has been limited to non-lethal equipment such as night-vision goggles, body armor, and food rations for soldiers.
Merkel's stance against providing so-called "lethal aid" to the Ukrainian army is at odds with several high-ranking US officials, including NATO Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove, who has advocated for providing weapons to Ukraine to defend itself.
Speaking to reporters in Munich, Breedlove said that Western powers "should [not] preclude out of hand a military option," but added that there is "no conversation about putting boots on the ground."
"The Ukrainians have been straightforward in their request to all the nations of NATO and other nations as well about the capabilities they need to address artillery problems, to address communications problems and jamming problems," Breedlove said. "The Ukrainians have asked for help in all of those areas and those are the areas that nations are discussing."
This week's European led-talks, which bypassed US officials, have revealed a growing gulf among Western leaders over how to handle the crisis. While Washington is toying with the idea of increasing military support to Ukraine by sending weapons, some countries fear being dragged into a proxy war with Russia.
In an emotional and personal moment, Merkel reminisced about her childhood growing up in East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She said that she understood the international community's decision not to intervene militarily then, and that such an approach would also "not be successful now."
Warning of the potential for "uncontrollable escalation," the German chancellor also referenced the need for European unity and the horrors of WWII.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov adopted a far less conciliatory tone. Speaking at the Munich conference, he blamed the US and European Union for escalating the Ukraine conflict at "every stage," and claimed the current crisis was a result of 25 years of America's obsession with dominance over Europe after the Cold War.
Talking about the annexation of Crimea via referendum, Lavrov claimed the process "complied with the UN Charter on self-determination." The comment was met with derisive laughter from the mainly European audience.
Several rounds of peace talks held in Minsk crumbled last week after both sides walked away from the negotiating table accusing each other of repeated violations of a ceasefire agreement reached September 5.
The conflict, which Poroshenko said recently costs Ukraine 5 to 7 million euros per day, has put massive strain on the country's already beleaguered economy. The Ukrainian hryvnia fell more than 50 percent against the dollar in just two days this week. Poroshenko is currently engaged in desperate wrangling with the International Monetary Fund for a much-needed loan to prop up the country's economy.
According to the latest United Nations figures, more than 5,300 people have been killed and 1.2 million others displaced in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began in mid-April.
A fresh offensive announced by pro-Russian rebel forces at the beginning of January has led to a dramatic spike in violence, with 224 civilians killed and more than 540 hurt in recent weeks.
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