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MUNICH — The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France agreed to meet in Belarus on Wednesday to try to broker a peace deal for Ukraine amid escalating violence there and signs of cracks in the transatlantic consensus on confronting Vladimir Putin.
The four leaders held a call on Sunday, two days after Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande traveled to Moscow for talks with Putin that produced no breakthrough in the nearly year-long conflict that has claimed over 5,000 lives.
After the call, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said progress had been made and that he was hopeful the meeting in Minsk would lead to a "swift and unconditional ceasefire" in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have stepped up a military offensive in recent weeks, seizing new territory.
A Ukraine military spokesman said on Sunday that intense fighting was continuing around the rail junction town of Debaltseve, with rebel fighters making repeated attempts to storm lines defended by government troops.
At a high-level security conference in Munich over the weekend, Merkel said it was uncertain whether further negotiations would lead to a deal with Putin but argued that all opportunities for a diplomatic solution should be pursued.
She came under sharp criticism from U.S. senators Lyndsey Graham and John McCain, both Republican hawks, for opposing the sending of defensive weapons to the Ukraine army to help it fight the separatists.
"The Ukrainians are being slaughtered and we're sending them blankets and meals," McCain said in Munich. "Blankets don't do well against Russian tanks."
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to play down the differences with Europe.
"Will we remain united? The answer is absolutely, positively, unequivocally we are united, we will remain united," Kerry told the conference on Sunday, describing any differences as tactical rather than strategic.
Members of the Obama administration are also believed to be skeptical about arming Ukraine but the president faces intense pressure from a Republican-led Congress to act.
The Germans believe sending weapons to a depleted Ukraine army would not improve its chances against separatists armed with "unlimited" supplies of Russian military equipment.
They also fear that delivering arms would internationalize the conflict, playing into the hands of Putin, who has painted the crisis as a western plot to weaken Russia.
Merkel, 60, flew to Washington on Sunday for talks with Obama. A Russian speaker who grew up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, she has taken the lead in pursuing a diplomatic solution to the conflict, speaking with Putin by phone dozens of times over the past year and meeting with him in Moscow, Sydney and Milan in recent months.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who in Munich accused the West of turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing by Kiev-backed militias, said on Sunday that he expected the Minsk meeting to yield "important decisions."
But German and French officials were more circumspect, and Putin said on Sunday after the call with Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko that the Minsk meeting could only happen on Wednesday "if by then we have managed to agree our positions."
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking on French television, said he feared a "dramatic spiral" in violence if dialogue with Moscow did not succeed.
"It's a matter of hours and days. The moment that a break in these discussions ends in an impasse, I fear the worst," he said.