The two presidents, feeling pressure on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border, met on the sidelines of a regional summit today in Minsk.
There was a tense handshake and a suggestion of future talks. But Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko's one-on-one face-off across a bargaining table in Minsk on Tuesday produced no deal to resolve the steadily worsening situation in Ukraine.
The Minsk meeting was originally intended as a venue for the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union, the European Union, and Ukraine to hash out their economic differences after Kiev opted to sign an association agreement with the EU. In a lengthy speech at the meeting, Mr. Putin warned that Ukraine will have to forgo its previous trade preferences with the Customs Union and accept that Moscow will erect tariff barriers against the expected flood of duty-free EU produce into Ukraine.
"Of course, Russia cannot [sit still] in this situation. I would like to stress that we would be forced to reciprocate, to protect our market," he said.
Most attention was focused on the first ever bilateral meeting between Putin and Poroshenko, and the hope that the two might somehow find an acceptable formula for ending the deepening hostility between their countries.
But two sharply divergent paths to peace were on display. Putin argued, as Russia has since the crisis began, that only a negotiated political dialog between Kiev and the restive regions of eastern Ukraine can end the fighting.
"We are convinced that today, [the Ukraine crisis] cannot be solved by further escalation of the military scenario without taking into account vital interests of the southeastern regions of the country and without a peaceful dialogue with its representatives," Putin said.
Mr. Poroshenko said he still hopes to achieve peace through his own plan, announced in June, which would involve the rebels laying down their arms and accepting safe passage out of the conflict zone.
He argued, as Kiev has from the start, that the main source of unrest in eastern Ukraine is Russian interference. "The prime condition for a stabilization of the situation in Donbass is the establishment of effective control over the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is vital to do everything to stop deliveries of equipment and arms to the fighters," Poroshenko said.
Fighting has intensified in recent days, with pro-Russian rebels claiming big gains in a military breakout from the Ukrainian Army's siege of their main capital, Donetsk. But they also may have undermined any chance of a negotiated solution between Putin and Poroshenko by flatly rejecting Moscow's key demand that the crisis be settled by Kiev granting substantial autonomy, or "federalization," to its restive eastern regions. On Tuesday, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, told journalists that only complete independence from Ukraine will satisfy the rebels now.
"Of course, negotiations may get underway and some kind of armistice may be achieved, but it will be fragile and not real. Novorossiya [the two rebel republics of Donetsk and Luhansk] no longer agrees not only to federalization, but to the preservation of Ukraine as such," the official ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Mr. Zakharchenko as saying.
Moscow has taken several steps in recent weeks that appear to be an attempt to set the stage for a negotiated settlement. They include replacing the former Russian leaders of the insurrection with local Ukrainians, inviting observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor some checkpoints on the Russian-Ukrainian border, and trying to change the conversation to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in war-torn eastern Ukraine by sending in convoys of essential supplies to the stricken population.
"It's clear by now that Russia wants a deal that will bring this to a suitable end. It's gone too far, and Putin is looking quite nervous about all the damage that's been done to Russia-Western relations and even the total rupture of Russia's traditional ties with Ukraine," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
Poroshenko may also be ready to deal, given that a military victory against the rebels continues to elude Ukraine's army, parliamentary elections are looming, and the costs of protracted war in the east are beginning to tell heavily on Ukraine's staggering economy.
The EU, particularly Germany, has also stepped up efforts to encourage a diplomatic end to the war in recent days. Angela Merkel visited Kiev last weekend and pressed Poroshenko to declare a ceasefire and embrace some degree of decentralization for Ukraine's eastern regions as a precondition for peace.
"I think the meeting between Putin and Poroshenko is a good start, but nobody should be celebrating just yet," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Things have gone too far, and nobody is ready for the kind of compromises that are going to be needed."