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Diplomacy Round Sparked After Upsurge In Eastern Ukraine Fighting


There is a rare pause in the fighting in eastern Ukraine this morning. Separatists supported by Russia and Ukrainian troops have agreed to allow civilians to leave Debaltseve, a small city being fought over with tanks and heavy artillery.


The past 36 hours have seen a new push by Western leaders to reach a cease-fire across the region. In a moment, we'll hear from Moscow about upcoming talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

GREENE: But first, here's NPR's Michele Kelemen, who is traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry. He is in Munich for a security conference after spending yesterday in Ukraine.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The planes of the German and French leaders and the U.S. secretary of state stood side-by-side on the tarmac at the Kiev airport as diplomats scrambled to put together a new peace plan. Kerry didn't actually meet the Europeans there. But he and Vice President Biden will have a chance to meet Germany's chancellor here in Munich Saturday and again on Monday, when Angela Merkel meets President Obama at the White House.


JOHN KERRY: All of this is part of a concerted effort to see if we can put a little bit more meat on the bones of a legitimate initiative that could bring about a de-escalation of this situation.

KELEMEN: This diplomatic flurry came after Russia made proposals that one Western diplomat dismissed as a roadmap to another frozen conflict and a cynical effort to get out of all the commitments Moscow made last year to defuse the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Kerry says the U.S. is still insisting that Russia do what it said it would, pull back and restore the internationally recognized Ukrainian-Russian border.


KERRY: The first thing to achieve is a cease-fire. None of what I have just described can come at the expense of the sovereignty of Ukraine or its independence.

KELEMEN: Ukraine's prime minister, though, is sounding nervous about the proposals moving back and forth between Moscow and European capitals. Arseniy Yatsenyuk spoke alongside Kerry in Kiev yesterday.


ARSENIY YATSENYUK: It's crystal clear that President Putin wants to split the unity in the EU. He wants to split the unity between the EU and the U.S., but he will fail.

KELEMEN: He also says that it's clear Russia has, in his words, invaded Ukraine. And to the Russian officials who deny arming and leading the separatists, Yatsenyuk said he would give them his glasses so that they could see more clearly. The Ukrainian prime minister wants to see the US and Europe maintain a united front and help beef up his country's defense capabilities.


YATSENYUK: It's not for their offensive operation. This is for the defensive operation. God knows what is the ultimate goal of Russia and President Putin.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration has not yet decided whether to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons, things like antitank missiles to deter Russia from sending in armored vehicles and troops. Kerry says President Obama's preference is diplomacy.


KERRY: We are not interested in a proxy war. Our objective is to change Russia's behavior. And we'll consider all options that are available to us in coordination with our partners that will help us achieve a negotiated solution.

KELEMEN: And he adds, one of the best weapons would be Ukraine's democratic and economic success. Kerry says he came away from Kiev with reassurances that the government is committed to the reforms needed for a massive IMF bailout. A German diplomat who chairs the Munich Security Conference pointed out in a recent op-ed that Western pressure on Ukraine to carry out economic reforms while showing restraint on the battlefield is like telling someone in the middle of a heart attack to run a marathon. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Munich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.