Russia, Ukraine, Germany, France: Leaders Gather In Minsk

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Barack Obama called on Vladimir Putin on the eve of peace talks, and urged him to agree to a diplomatic solution

Leaders of Russia, France, Germany and Ukraine are meeting today in Minsk, Belarus to hammer out a peace agreement. Ahead of the summit, fighting in the eastern Ukraine has intensified as Pro-Russia separatists have encircled Ukrainian forces in the town of Debaltseve. More than 20 people have died in the in the past 24 hours. A total of 63 people, including 32 Ukrainian soldiers, were wounded.

A number of open questions must be resolved

An intensified fighting could be aimed at forcing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to accept an agreement without putting any preconditions. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter Radio on Tuesday that it was a “last chance negotiation.” Fabius said there were a number of issues to be resolved, but the deal was likely to go ahead.

Russia was optimistic about a potential deal. Diplomatic sources in Moscow told Vladimir Soldatkin of Reuters that they saw a 70% chance of reaching an agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on Wednesday that there was a “noticeable progress” in the run-up to the Minsk summit. However, Lavrov once again criticized Ukraine government for its “unrealistic demands.” Ukraine had put a precondition that it wanted complete control over its border with Russia, which is largely controlled by pro-Moscow separatists.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Tuesday that there were several open questions that must be resolved ahead of the summit. French President Francois Hollande told reporters following a meeting with the President of Romania that reaching a “global agreement” was in common interest. He also emphasized the benefits of lifting sanctions on Russia.

Pro-Russia rebels may get 200 square miles of area

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that France wanted a rapid withdrawal of lethal weapons, a ceasefire, the respect of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and an effective border check between Russia and Ukraine. France also wanted a specific status for people of the eastern Ukraine. Angela Merkel and Hollande are expected to give pro-Russia separatists 200 square miles of area. The peace proposal includes the creation of a 50-70 kilometers of demilitarized zone near the current front line.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama called on Vladimir Putin on the eve of peace talks. Obama urged Putin to agree to a diplomatic solution to the conflict. In a separate phone call with Poroshenko, Obama promised to keep providing financial assistance to Ukraine. The Obama administration is also considering arming Ukraine with lethal weapons should Wednesday’s peace talks fail.

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