On the heels of Franco-German talks with Russia's Vladimir Putin, French President François Hollande on Saturday called a new peace initiative a last-ditch effort to avoid a war in Ukraine.
“I think this is one of the last chances, that’s why we took this initiative,” Hollande said, speaking of talks held in conjunction with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Putin.
Speaking on France 2 television on Saturday, Hollande said the plan under negotiation would see a 50- to 70-kilometre (31- to 44-mile) demilitarised zone established.
He also called for "rather strong" autonomy in parts of east Ukraine.
The negotiators’ aim is to draw up a possible joint document on implementing the much-violated September peace plan concluded in Minsk, Belarus. That agreement also featured a demilitarised zone, though the battle lines have since changed, and the government in Kiev has offered a measure of autonomy to the separatists.
“If we don’t manage to find not just a compromise but a lasting peace agreement, we know perfectly well what the scenario will be. It has a name, it’s called war,” Hollande told reporters in the city of Tulle in central France.
Merkel, who on Saturday participated in the high-profile Munich Security Conference, said that although the peace plan is worth trying, “it is uncertain if it will succeed” in ending the fighting that has so far killed more than 5,000 people.
Merkel, who in Munich held three-way talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and US Vice President Joe Biden and will fly to Washington on Sunday to meet US President Barack Obama, also questioned the logic of sending arms to fight separatists who are believed to have unlimited supplies of weapons from their Russian backers.
“I understand the debate but I believe that more weapons will not lead to the progress Ukraine needs. I really doubt that,” the conservative German leader said. “There is already a large number of weapons in the region and I don’t see that this has made a military solution more likely.”
The debate over how to confront the Moscow-backed rebels has led to an emerging rift between the US and Europe, with Obama facing increasing pressure from some members of Congress to provide Kiev with lethal weapons.
NATO’s top military commander, US Air Force general Philip Breedlove, gave the strongest signals yet in Munich that he now wants the Western allies to consider sending weapons to Ukraine.
“I don’t think we should preclude out of hand the possibility of the military option,” Breedlove told reporters, adding that he was referring to weapons or capabilities and that there was “no conversation about boots on the ground”.
In Kiev on Saturday, a Ukrainian military spokesman said separatists had stepped up shelling of government forces on all front lines and appeared to be massing for new offensives on the key railway town of Debaltseve and the coastal city of Mariupol.
Merkel and Hollande flew home from Moscow in the dead of night after five hours of talks with Putin on Friday that yielded little beyond a promise to keep talking.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)