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Analysis: Ukraine War Escalates as Leaders Gather in Minsk for Peace Talks

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If you’re looking for a symbol of Ukraine’s escalating war and the fragility of today’s hopes for peace, look no further than Kramatorsk.

As Western leaders prepare to sit down with Russia and Ukraine to push for a cease-fire and peace deal, the fall of a deadly rocket in the city far from the front line symbolized the unpredictable path of the conflict, today and in the days ahead.

The rocket's arc was deadly and random — it killed seven civilians and four soldiers in Kramatorsk, according to Ukraine — and despite a lack of proof over whether Russian-backed rebels fired it, the worried civilians gathered around its shell thought the message was clear: "We can hit you wherever you are; you cannot defeat us militarily; there can be no peace without negotiating with us as equals."

Ukraine’s president visited the injured from the attack in a nearby hospital and declared it “a war crime,” saying that Wednesday's peace talks, in the Belorussian capital of Minsk, represent “one of our last chances” to end the conflict.

Among the leaders gathering in Minsk, many are downplaying the prospect of success. A spokesman for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel said the talks “offer a glimmer of hope ... no more than that,” while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he "does not see" how pro-Russian rebels could agree to give control over the border back to the Ukrainian side.

They are right to limit expectations: The obstacles to any deal between Russia and Ukraine are huge. It would mean agreeing upon the terms of a ceasefire, the speed of any withdrawal of weapons and men, the establishment of a demilitarized zone, the arrival of ceasefire monitors, prisoners, political rights for eastern Ukraine, and so on.

Just discussions about peace talks have spurred an escalation in the conflict, with both sides pushing to grab land before lines are drawn on the ground. Ukrainian troops have opened up several new fronts near the port city of Mariupol, while rebels have been bombarding troops, who are nearly surrounded at the railway hub of Debaltseve. Both sides are battling for leverage, so their sponsors can argue more forcefully at the peace table.

On the eve of the talks, Ukraine announced the deaths of 19 more soldiers and injuries to 78 around Debaltseve. While the U.N. said this week that the death toll from the war has reached nearly 5,500, one senior surgeon at a military hospital in Kiev scoffed at that figure.

"We have treated 4,000 injured troops in this hospital alone,” he said.

What started as a regional dispute has grown into an all-out war — and concerns over it turning into a proxy conflict between Moscow and the West are paramount as Russia's President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande, Merkel and Ukraine's President Petro Poroschenko sit down for talks.

President Barack Obama phoned Putin on the eve of the talks to reiterate his concerns about the deepening crisis. But saying simultaneously that he has ordered defense officials to consider supplying weapons to Ukraine's embattled army has — from Moscow's vantage point — had the opposite effect.

For hardliners in Moscow, that’s a red rag to their post-Soviet bullish temperament; proof that the U.S. is stirring up a war it denies being involved in and insists it wants to avert.

So how's the climate in Moscow? Distinctly chilly: sub-zero temperatures in the air and probably below that on the measures of trust and mutual respect.

The West says it wants to deter Russian aggression and avert a greater war. Ukraine says it wants to maintain its territorial integrity and sovereignty in full. No one is clear what Putin wants. And the Russian-backed rebels want the world to recognize their gains since the last ceasefire in September —a frozen conflict.

On the rare chance that a deal is reached in Minsk, the next question will be, "How long can the conflict stay frozen?"

Fighting seasons often begin — not end — in spring. And the last ceasefire deal was hardly worth the paper it was written on; "more honored," to quote Shakespeare, “in the breach than the observance.” Any breakthrough, then, will be accompanied by the hopes that what follows is not an even deeper tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.

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