Today, even as Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his recently elected Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko shook hands in Minsk, the fighting in Ukraine continued to escalate, as pro-Russia forces launched an offensive in the southeast of the county.
As dawn broke this morning, huge towers of black smoke rose near the Black Sea coast towns of Sedovo and Novoazovsk, as mortar and grad fire rained down. Frightened residents hid in the basement and Ukrainian troops ran for cover as the previously peaceful area faced a second day of artillery fire.
Meanwhile in Belarus, despite the first face-to-face meeting of Ukraine and Russia's leaders since the beginning of June, there was little sign that a diplomatic resolution could be reached in the near future.
In a seeming stalemate, Poroshenko — who in a pointed snub did not mention the Russian president by name, and only referred to the "presence of the leadership of the Russian Federation" — simply reiterated a previously rejected peace plan for the rebels to lay down their arms and retreat to Russia via a safe corridor — an offer first made by the president following his election in May.
Poroshenko also repeated demands for a halt in the shipments of arms from Russia to the insurgent fighters. Kiev has long accused Moscow of covertly supporting the rebel uprising in Ukraine's east by enabling men and arms to flow across the country's porous eastern border.
Putin countered by highlighting how Ukraine's tightened ties with Europe are damaging his country's economy.
Leaders in Europe and the United States have hit Russia with several rounds of financial sanctions in a bid to exert pressure on Moscow over its support of the rebel insurgency.
The meeting comes the same day as Ukraine claims to have captured Russian soldiers operating inside its borders. Video footage published on the Facebook page of Ukraine's anti-terror operation shows the purported Russian soldiers dressed in military fatigues.
One of the men, who identified himself as Ivan Milchankov, a soldier in a Russian paratroop unit, claimed he did not know where they had crossed the border on a planned three-day, 45-mile march.
"Everything is different here, not like they show it on television. We've come as cannon fodder," he said in the video.
Moscow has denied supporting the uprising in its neighbors east, and today Reuters cited Russian news agencies that quoted a defense ministry source as saying that the captured soldiers had crossed the border into Ukraine "by accident."
Russian soldiers have also been caught snapping selfies inside military vehicles, including a BUK missile, and posting them to Instagram and other social media sites.
On Monday, Alexander Zakharchenko, the newly appointed prime minister of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, thanked Russia for its "support" and warned that a fresh offensive by the rebels was imminent.
"We have spent the last week preparing special operation units including a battalion of tanks, a battalion of artillery, and a unit of snipers," Zakharchenko told reporters. "Now we will attack."
On Sunday morning a mortar shell smashed through the ceiling of Donetsk morgue, leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. Six other shells hit the territory of this hospital in the assault. Photo by VICE News/Harriet Salem
Seven shells hit the territory of Kalinina hospital in Donetsk on Sunday morning. Photo by VICE News/Harriet Salem
And by Tuesday afternoon it seemed the pro-Russia forces had already gained a tentative victory establishing a new front, as Ukrainian troops beat a hasty retreat from their positions in Novoazovsk, hightailing from the town in shot up buses.
Securing the coastal stretch near Sedovo and Novoazovsk, towns just a few miles from Ukraine's eastern border, is strategically important for the rebels as it opens up more supply routes in from Russia.
In the village of Bezimenne, only 15 miles from the coastal city of Mariupol, soldiers blocked the road and warned distressed civilians to get out the area or retreat to basements, as the sound of grad rocket and mortar fire echoed in the distance.
In the nearby countryside, heavy artillery war was also being waged near the towns of Noviy Svet and Starobeshovo. Farm laborers continued to work in the fields to gather the last of the watermelon harvest, even as thick clouds of smoke rose nearby and cars flying white flags and signs reading deti [Russian for children] propped on the dashboard sped down the country roads, filled with families fleeing the fighting en mass.
The situation is also rapidly deteriorating in Donetsk, the region's administrative capital. Although still firmly under rebel control, the city with a pre-war population of one million has come under an increasingly heavy barrage of artillery fire over the past week as Ukraine's anti-terror forces have pushed their lines forward.
In the city's crammed morgue, the results of the recent bombardments are evident on every front. On the buildings' top floor, sunlight poured through the ceiling where a mortar smashed through the roof in the early hours of Sunday morning. Downstairs the air was filled with an overwhelming stench by the piles of decomposing bodies in the corridor and examination room.
"All the refrigerators are full, so we have nowhere else to put them," the morgue's director Kalashnikov Anatolievich told VICE News. "It's emotionally very tough, we conducted a post-mortem on an entire family the other day — a husband, wife, and their two children."
With all refrigerators full bodies are being piled up in the corridor and examination room of Donetsk morgue. The rebel-held city, with a pre-war population of nearly one million, has been subject to an increasingly heavy barrage of artillery over the last week. Photo by VICE News/Harriet Salem.
Nearly all the 368 civilian casualties that have passed through the city's morgue since fighting began in mid-April have been killed by explosion trauma or shrapnel wounds, the chief mortician said.
Many of the dead are no longer being claimed and some relatives have no money to lay their loved ones to rest.
"We buried 52 unidentified [civilian] bodies yesterday, and another 12 are scheduled for today," said Anatolievich. as he showed a truck of coffins constructed hastily from scrap wood on the back of a truck.
At least 344,000 have fled the region and more than 2,000 people have been killed since fighting began in mid-April, according to the latest figures from the United Nations.
Back on southeast coast in Mariupol, however, the mood remained calm, despite the fighting just 27 miles away. As dusk fell, locals packed up their belongings on the beach and headed either home, or out to the city's cafes and bars.
Despite fighting less than 27 miles away the residents of southeast port town of Mariupol remained calm enjoying the summer weather on the beach. Photo by VICE News/Harriet Salem
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem