DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The leaders of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia are gathering today in Minsk, Belarus, to try and work out a peace deal to end the war in Ukraine. As of just a few hours ago, it was not clear this meeting would even take place. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, kept everyone guessing, apparently insisting on certain preconditions for the gathering. Finally, the Kremlin announced Putin would be there for the meetings. France's foreign minister calls this a last-chance negotiation in a war that has already killed more than 5,000 people. We spoke a bit earlier with NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Corey, good morning.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So, Corey, it's worth noting this is a pretty high-profile round of talks. It's not just diplomats. We're talking about the leaders of major powers devoting a lot of time to try and resolve this crisis. And yet we don't even know if this meeting is going to go forward. Why is this so complicated?
FLINTOFF: Well, one reason is that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, apparently feels that he's in a really strong position right now, and he's taking a very tough line. He said last week that they were aiming for this meeting, but only if we get an agreement in advance. And that negotiating is apparently going on right now. I spoke last night with Keith Darden. He's a professor at American University in Washington, and he's an expert on these Russian and Ukrainian politics. He says one problem is that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is going to have a very hard time accepting any kind of deal that Russia would be willing to offer right now. And here's why.
KEITH DARDEN: The battlefield successes from the Russian side are significant, and they have a substantial Ukrainian force bottled up in Debaltseve. And so they're in a very strong negotiating position, and I don't think that the Russians would retreat from the territories that they've taken. And I think that Poroshenko's going to have a hard time accepting the loss of territory. I think it makes life difficult for him domestically.
GREENE: So that professor there, Corey, brings up Debaltseve, the small town in the East where Ukrainian forces are bottled up, I mean, basically being held at bay by these pro-Russian separatists. So essentially, Poroshenko has very few choices, being asked to negotiate at a time when his military is in real trouble.
FLINTOFF: Yes, actually almost hostages. We don't know how many Ukrainian military are in Debaltseve or trapped there. But it's a substantial number, and they can either be taken prisoner or they can be wiped out. It seems like a pretty awful choice.
GREENE: Well, Corey, one of the other forces at work here - I mean, in the United States that our Republican lawmakers, like Senator John McCain who have been pushing for the U.S. to provide lethal weapons to the Ukrainian government. How could that change the dynamic, and what would that mean for these efforts of peace?
FLINTOFF: Well, that's really hard to say, and there's a lot of controversy about it. As you know, the European leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, are really strongly opposed to providing more weapons to Ukraine. One argument in favor of providing weapons is that it would give Poroshenko more negotiating strength. But it's hard to see how that would work.
For one thing, it would take a substantial amount of time to deliver serious modern weapons to Ukraine and then a lot more time to train Ukraine's military to use them. Ukraine is basically never going to be a match for Russia militarily. Many analysts say that even the promise of U.S. weapons for Ukraine would be an incentive for the Russians to escalate their support for the separatists.
GREENE: And, Corey, just briefly, you keep saying things like Russian military, Russian air power. Is this becoming a war between Ukraine and Russia based on what we know?
FLINTOFF: Yes. Well, you know, Russia is still officially denying that it has any military involvement in the region. But even the Russian media here in Moscow are starting to admit more and more that there are in fact Russian troops and that they are fighting in Ukraine.
GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Corey Flintoff talking to us from Moscow on this day when we expect a group of foreign leaders to gather in Minsk, trying for peace in the war in Ukraine. Corey, thank you.
FLINTOFF: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.