According to reports from Reuters, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine were due to attend a peace summit on Wednesday, but Ukraine’s pro-Moscow separatists diminished the chance of a deal by launching some of the war’s worst fighting in an assault on a government garrison.
Kiev said 19 of its soldiers were killed in a day of pro-Russian separatist assaults at a single location near the railway hub of Debaltseve, some of the worst losses it has reported in nine months of war.
Rebels who tore up a five-month-old truce in January are trying to encircle government forces in Debaltseve, a strategic location that would let them link up their main strongholds.
The summit is being held in neighboring Belarus under a Franco-German proposal to try to halt the fighting. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Francois Hollande will meet Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Hopes for a breakthrough are slim, with European officials acknowledging that the advancing rebels are unlikely to agree to halt and go back to previous positions.
A surge in fighting in the 24 hours before the leaders were to gather, including a rocket attack that killed 11 people deep in government-held territory on Tuesday, could be intended to force Poroshenko to accept a deal recognizing the rebel advance.
Hours before the talks were due to start, officials still spoke of the possibility that the meeting would be called off.
“There are a number of problems which remain to be resolved … but it is very likely to go ahead,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio. “It is really a last-chance negotiation.”
Still, Moscow maintained its optimism. A Russian diplomatic source said it was 70 percent likely that an agreement would be reached.
“The presidents aren’t traveling (to Minsk) for no reason,” the source said.