A weekend diplomatic effort by Europe to defuse the Ukraine conflict with Russia, led by the leaders of Germany and France, appeared to bog down over key issues involving territory and spheres of influence.
The meeting in Moscow on Friday between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of Germany and France failed to produce a lasting solution to the conflict, wire agencies covering the talks reported. But in a telephone conference on Sunday, the leaders agreed to meet again in Minsk on Wednesday.
The tensions on Sunday appeared to be mounting as some U.S. officials called on the United States to send military arms to Ukrainian forces to help defend against Russian artillery being used by separatists.
Germany, France and the European Union oppose the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, flew to Washington on Sunday to try to persuade President Barack Obama to hold off on the shipments. She is set to meet with the U.S. president on Monday.
Tension on Sunday appeared to be mounting as some U.S. officials called on the United States to send military arms to Ukrainian forces to help defend against Russian artillery being used by separatists.
"I cannot imagine how better equipping the Ukrainian army will convince (Russian) President Putin that he is in danger of losing this conflict militarily,'' Ms. Merkel told reporters before flying to Washington from Berlin.
Ms. Merkel faces an uphill battle in Washington, where support is growing for the West to intervene militarily and halt the Russian advance. At the Munich Security Conference this weekend, the U.S. vice president, Joe Biden, told participants that Russia should simply "get out of the Ukraine.''
Mr. Biden met with Ms. Merkel and the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, in Munich. Fighting in eastern Ukraine has escalated in recent weeks, with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reporting that 224 people have been killed and more than 520 injured in just the last three weeks of January.
Meanwhile, diplomats working for Ms. Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Putin continued to work toward an agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine. In a German television interview on Saturday, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said Ukraine was at a crossroads.
Video: NATO's Secretary General Press Conference following a meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov.
If an agreement is not reached, the fighting could escalate, Mr. Steinmeier told government broadcaster ARD.
President Obama has said he would be open to sending arms to Ukraine, but has not publicly committed to shipments.
Ms. Merkel appeared set on buying more time from the U.S. government to press the European diplomatic mission, which its organizers hope could produce a peace plan at the meeting in Minsk.
The Merkel-Obama relationship -- and that of the United States and Germany -- has been strained by revelations made public by former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. intelligence had eavesdropped on Ms. Merkel's private phone calls.
While the two leaders have met publicly since the disclosures, their relations remain cool.
The new bilateral dysfunction has seemed to produce deadlock over key issues such as the future funding of NATO, a proposed transatlantic trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, and the ECB's austerity-driven fiscal management.
"The United States and Europe are pulling on the same big subjects, but increasingly they are pulling in different directions,'' said a German diplomat, describing the strained relationship with the United States.
Some members of German industry support Ms. Merkel's attempt to resolve the Ukraine situation peacefully.
Germany is Russia's largest trading partner and many German exporters have complained that western sanctions against Russia imposed last year are translating into lost sales and profit.
"We must preserve the dialogue -- it is a precondition for a peaceful resolution of the conflict,'' said Jürgen Fitschen, Deutsche Bank's co-chief executive.
The head of the state-owned German railway, Deutsche Bahn, also spoke out over the weekend: "We should give less thought to a military buildup and more to solving the conflict,'' said Deutsche Bahn Chief Executive Rüdiger Grube.
The next days may be a turning point in the nearly year-old Ukraine conflict, which began with Russia's invasion and seizure of the Crimean peninsula last spring. As of Sunday night, it was unclear whether Ms. Merkel, Mr. Hollande and Mr. Putin would be able to defuse the conflict at their meeting later this week in Minsk.
Kevin O'Brien is editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. Sven Afhüppe is co-editor in chief of Handelsblatt. Mathias Brüggmann is Handelsblatt's international editor and reports frequently from Moscow. Till Hoppe is an editor covering German politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To reach the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]