The leaders of Germany and France launched a diplomatic initiative over the crisis in Ukraine on Thursday, announcing they would fly to Kiev and Moscow with a proposal to resolve the conflict that would be "acceptable to all."
The coordinated trip by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande comes amid worsening violence in Ukraine’s restive east and endemic breaches of a five-month-old cease-fre — a truce that has failed to stem the increasing civilian and military death toll.
It also comes as Washington floats the idea of arming Ukraine in their battle with pro-Russian separatists — a move both France and Germany have said they are against. On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kiev, although he had no official plans to go to Moscow. His likely cabinet colleague, defense secretary nominee Ashton Carter, told lawmakers on Wednesday that he favored arming Ukraine's forces.
The latest diplomatic push comes after peace talks collapsed on Saturday in Belarus. EU leaders are expected to consider punishing new economic sanctions against Moscow next week, despite previous prohibitions seemingly having little sway on Moscow’s attitude towards its neighbor. Germany will also host world leaders at a security conference over the weekend at which Ukraine is expected to be the main subject.
"Together with Angela Merkel we have decided to take a new initiative," Hollande told a news conference. "We will make a new proposal to solve the conflict which will be based on Ukraine's territorial integrity."
He and Merkel would meet President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on Thursday and Russia's Vladimir Putin in Moscow the following day.
"For several days Angela Merkel and I have worked on a text ... a text that can be acceptable to all," Hollande said.
He warned about risks of escalation in Ukraine: "Now we are in a war, and in a war that could be a total war."
Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert said in a statement: "In view of the escalating violence in recent days, the chancellor and President Hollande are intensifying their efforts, which have been going on for months, for a peaceful settlement to the conflict in eastern Ukraine."
The Kremlin confirmed the visit. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies the leaders would discuss concrete steps to resolve the conflict.
NATO says Russia has sent weapons, funds and troops on the ground to assist the rebel advance, undermining the five-month-old cease-fire in eastern Ukraine where war has already killed more than 5,000 people.
Moscow denies involvement in fighting for territory the Kremlin now calls "New Russia."
The remarks by President Barack Obama's nominee for defense secretary were Washington's clearest signal yet that it is considering arming Ukraine. Carter told his Senate confirmation hearing he would "very much incline" toward supplying arms.
"The nature of those arms, I can't say right now," Carter said. "But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I'm sure your question is, lethal arms."
Asked about the risks of escalation, he said: "I think the economic and political pressure on Russia has to remain the main center of gravity of our effort in pushing back."
Moscow retaliated Thursday, issuing a warning that supplying lethal weapons to Kiev would be viewed as a threat to Russian security.
Western advocates of arming Ukraine say giving Kiev weapons would help raise the costs for Putin of pursuing Russia's objectives. Opponents worry about escalating a conflict that would see NATO and Russia actively aiding opposing sides in battle, as in the proxy conflicts of the Cold War.
Al Jazeera and wire services