The leaders of Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine will hold a summit in Minsk, Belarus this week as they try to stem intense fighting in eastern Ukraine, officials said Sunday. The announcement comes as pro-Russian rebels launched new offensives on key coastal cities this weekend, killing five Ukrainian soldiers and injuring 26.
In meetings scheduled to start on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will draw up a package of measures that are expected to breathe new life into an earlier peace accord drawn up in September.
U.S. Secretary of State Kerry, meanwhile, denied that there is a U.S.-Europe rift over how to respond to the crisis after leading U.S. senators sharply criticized Germany and other countries who oppose sending arms to the Ukraine military.
"There is no division, there is no split," Kerry said. "I keep hearing people trying to create one. We are united, we are working closely together."
Kerry’s comments come amid reports of a trans-Atlantic rift over how to deal with Russia. The Obama administration is reportedly mulling the prospect of sending defensive weaponry to Kiev. Germany and France oppose such a move, saying it could lead to an escalation of violence. Russia, which is accused of supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, has said the introduction of U.S.-supplied weaponry would have grave consequences.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaking alongside Kerry, reiterated that he considers delivering weapons "not just highly risky but counterproductive."
Kerry said the U.S. agrees that there is no military solution to the Ukraine crisis that has now killed more than 5,300 people, according to United Nations figures.
Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, and French government officials said preparations for the Minsk summit will take place Monday in Berlin. They did not elaborate.
"They [the leaders] expect that their efforts during the Minsk meeting will lead to the swift and unconditional cessation of fire by both sides," Poroshenko's office said in a statement on Sunday.
Putin also confirmed that a summit was being planned for Wednesday. But he added that it might not come about.
"We will be aiming for Wednesday, if by that time we are able to agree on a number of the positions that we recently have been discussing intensely," he told journalists in Sochi during a meeting with the president of Belarus on Sunday, Russian news agencies reported.
A separate meeting between the signatories to last September's accord, including Russia, Ukraine and representatives of separatists in eastern Ukraine, will also take place in Minsk by Wednesday, Seibert said.
Before the mid-week summit, Merkel, who met Friday night in Moscow with Putin, is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington Monday on a previously scheduled trip.
In eastern Ukraine, the present focus on the battlefield is the town of Debaltseve, a vital rail and road junction that lies in a pocket between the two main separatist-controlled regions.
Ukrainian government forces on Saturday expressed confidence they have enough firepower to hold the town even though the pro-Russian rebels have steadily encroached in surrounding towns and villages.
Another source of concern for the Ukrainians is Mariupol, a southeastern city on the coast of the Sea of Azov, which lies between rebel-controlled areas and the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia last March. Mariupol's vulnerability was exposed last month when 30 civilians were killed there in intense rocket attacks from rebel-controlled areas.
Al Jazeera and wire services