BERLIN — In a top-level diplomatic dash, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel flew to Moscow on Friday to seek a cease-fire and then a lasting peace for war-wracked eastern Ukraine.
Their meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes a day after the two talked with the Ukrainian government in Kiev about how to salvage a peace plan agreed upon last year in Minsk, Belarus.
"Everyone is aware that the first step must be the cease-fire, but that it cannot suffice. We must seek a global solution," Hollande told journalists in Paris before heading to the airport.
Even getting the arms to fall silent would be a significant diplomatic breakthrough. Fighting between Russian-backed rebels and the government in Kiev has surged in the last month in eastern Ukraine. That has fueled fears the conflict is threatening Europe's overall security and prompted the U.S. to consider giving lethal weapons to Ukraine, an option opposed by European nations.
Russia has vehemently denied backing the rebels with troops and weapons but the top NATO commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said Thursday that Russia continues to supply the separatists with heavy, state-of-the-art weapons, air defenses and fighters.
In Berlin, Merkel said she and Hollande would use "all our power with direct visits to Kiev and to Moscow today to stop the bloodshed as soon as possible and to fill the Minsk agreement with life."
"We are convinced that there's no military solution to this conflict," Merkel added. "But we also know that it's completely open whether we will manage to achieve a cease-fire with these talks."
She rejected reports that she and Hollande were prepared to offer more territory to the Ukraine separatists, saying "I will never deal with territorial questions over another country."
In Brussels, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden questioned Putin's willingness to seek peace.
"(Putin) continues to call for new peace plans as his troops roll through the Ukrainian countryside and he absolutely ignores every agreement that his country has signed in the past and that he has signed," Biden said.
Biden insisted the 28-nation European Union and the United States needed to stand together and support the government of Ukraine with financial and political aid.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France were all expected at the Munich Security Conference, which starts Friday and is expected to be dominated by the conflict in Ukraine.
The head of the conference, former German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, called Merkel and Hollande's trip to Moscow a "last, resolute attempt to implement the Minsk cease-fire agreement."
"All sides know that fighting over every square meter won't help anyone. What's needed now is calm so there can be negotiations," Ischinger told German public broadcaster ZDF.
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, the rebels and the Ukrainian authorities agreed Friday on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the epicenter of the fighting, Debaltseve, a key railway hub between the two main rebel-controlled cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
A local cease-fire held as several dozen buses drove from nearby Vuhelhirsk toward Debaltseve, where residents have been trapped in the crossfire and left without power, heating or running water for almost two weeks.
Eduard Basurin, a rebel spokesman, said authorities expected to evacuate about 1,000 civilians Friday and they would be offered the choice of going to either rebel- or government-controlled territory.
But artillery duels between the rebels and government forces still rumbled through Donetsk, where one disenchanted resident had little hope for the success of the new European peace initiative.
"I don't expect anything. I'm so tired of this. It has been going on for so long," said retiree Esfira Papunova.
Corbet reported from Paris. Peter Leonard in Debaltseve, Ukraine and Raf Casert in Brussels also contributed.