Diplomatic efforts to defuse the tensions around Ukraine continued on Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron arriving in Kyiv the day after hours of talks with the Russian leader in Moscow yielded no apparent breakthroughs.
Macron met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as fears of a possible Russian invasion mount. Moscow has massed over 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, but insists it has no plans to attack Ukraine.
The Kremlin has demanded guarantees from the West that NATO will not accept Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members, halt weapon deployments there and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe — demands the US and NATO reject as nonstarters.
Western leaders in recent weeks have engaged in multiple rounds of diplomacy in the hope of de-escalating the tensions and preventing an attack. High-level talks have taken place against the backdrop of military drills underway in Russia and about to start in Belarus. On Tuesday, Russia’s Defense Ministry said six large landing ships were moving from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, where they will take part in the exercises. Macron sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday for talks that lasted more than five hours.
Macron told reporters on Tuesday that the talks with Putin allowed him to ensure that “there’s no degradation and no (further) escalation.”
He said he did not expect Putin to make any offers. He said his objective was to “prevent an escalation and open new perspectives... that objective is met.”
Putin after the meeting noted that the US and NATO have ignored Moscow’s demands, but signaled his readiness to continue the negotiations.
NATO, US and European leaders flatly reject the demands that they say challenge NATO’s core principles, like shutting the door to Ukraine or other countries that might seek membership; but they have offered to talk about other Russian security concerns in Europe.
He also warned that Ukraine’s accession to NATO could trigger a war between Russia and the alliance, should Kyiv move to retake the annexed peninsula of Crimea — in that case, “European countries will automatically be drawn into a military conflict with Russia.” Putin added that “there will be no winners.”
Biden has said that any prospect of Ukraine entering NATO “in the near term is not very likely,” but he and other NATO member nations and NATO itself refuse to rule out Ukraine’s entry into the alliance at a future date.
Macron described his discussion with Putin as “substantial” and “deep,” with a focus on conditions that could help de-escalation.
“We tried to build converging elements,” he said. “The upcoming days will be crucial and deep discussions together will be needed.”
In Washington, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with US President Joe Biden on Monday. Scholz will also travel to Kyiv and Moscow on Feb. 14-15.
Biden vowed that the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, which has been completed but is not yet operating, will be blocked “if Russia invades, that means tanks and troops crossing the border of Ukraine again.” The move would hurt Russia economically but also cause supply problems for Germany.
Scholz warned Moscow that “a lot more could happen than they’ve perhaps calculated with themselves” in case of an invasion.
On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Russia that invading Ukraine will only make NATO stronger, but said he still believes “principled and determined diplomacy” could defuse the crisis.
Writing in The Times of London, Johnson urged allies to finalize plans for heavy economic sanctions that would come into effect if Russia crosses the border into Ukraine.
He said the UK is ready to bolster NATO forces in Latvia and Estonia as he prepared to meet the Lithuanian prime minister in London on Tuesday to show support for the Baltic nations.
Johnson said he was considering dispatching RAF Typhoon fighters and Royal Navy warships to southeastern Europe. Britain said on Monday it is sending 350 troops to Poland as part of efforts to bolster NATO forces in Eastern Europe. It has already sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.
US officials have painted the threat of an offensive on Ukraine as imminent — warnings Moscow has scoffed at, accusing Washington of fueling the tensions around Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have been locked in a bitter tug-of-war since 2014, when, following the ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-friendly president, Moscow annexed Crimea and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the east of the country. The fighting between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces in the east has since killed over 14,000 people.
France and Germany in 2015 helped broker a peace deal, known as the Minsk agreements, that ended large-scale hostilities in the region but failed to bring about a political settlement of the conflict. The Kremlin has repeatedly accused Kyiv of sabotaging implementation of the agreements, and Ukrainian officials in recent weeks said that implementing them would be detrimental for the country.
After his meeting with Macron on Monday, Putin said without elaboration that some of the French president’s proposals could serve as a basis for a settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, adding that they agreed to have a call after Macron’s visit to Kyiv Tuesday.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Tuesday that Kyiv was “with interest anticipating the signals” Macron brought from Moscow.
“We’re open to dialogue, we’re in a constructive mood, we’re looking for a diplomatic solution, but we will not cross our ‘red lines,’” Kuleba told reporters.