The presidents of Ukraine and Russia, Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin, finally met on Tuesday in Minsk, but neither their words nor developments in eastern Ukraine gave much evidence that either side was ready for a cease-fire.
On the eve of the meeting, a Russian armored column was reported on the move in southeastern Ukraine, while the Kiev government produced Russian soldiers captured on Ukrainian territory. And in their opening statements, both leaders restated old positions.
The problem is that Ukraine has little interest in a cease-fire now, and Russia is pretending that it is not in the fray. Ukraine is steadily gaining ground against the Russian-backed rebels, and knows they would use a pause in fighting to rearm and consolidate control over their zones unless the border with Russia is first sealed off.
Russia blithely denies it is involved in the fighting at all, despite incontrovertible evidence that it is, and seems prepared to stoke the fires until Kiev accepts a political arrangement that would give the eastern regions a veto over any moves toward the West.
Mr. Poroshenko is right to avoid an unconditional cease-fire at this time. While he has declared that he is prepared to negotiate a looser federal structure, he cannot grant the eastern provinces a level of autonomy that would tie the central government’s hands.
Nor can he renege on the association agreement creating a framework for cooperation with the European Union, which is critical for Ukraine’s future.
The challenge for him and the West, then, is how to persuade Mr. Putin that Russia cannot impose its will on Ukraine through economic and military pressures, and to allow Mr. Putin a face-saving way of backing down.
One incentive would be to assure Mr. Putin that the Ukraine-European Union agreement will not harm Russia economically and that the eastern provinces will gain a degree of autonomy. And beyond that, he would want a commitment that all sanctions, other than those imposed over the annexation of Crimea, would be lifted in the context of an overall political settlement.
At the same time, the United States and Europe should be aware that Mr. Putin sees that this is a critical struggle, and has the backing of his nation. The West must make clear that it is equally committed to the support of Ukraine, and that it is prepared to continue ratcheting up sanctions against Russian businesses and financial institutions, and to support Kiev through financial aid and energy supplies.
None of that means that a face-to-face meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko was useless.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who has led the Western mediation efforts, was right when she said on Sunday that there will not be a military solution, and that even if a negotiated breakthrough is not imminent, political talks are “absolutely necessary.”