French and German leaders will visit Russia and Ukraine to try to deter invasion

The French president and German chancellor will visit Moscow and Kiev in the coming weeks, adding to diplomatic efforts to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an invasion of Ukraine.

Frenchman Emmanuel Macron is due to travel to Moscow on Monday and Kyiv on Tuesday, while Germany’s Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv on February 14 and Moscow on February 15.

The high-level visits come as China backed Russia’s demand to stop NATO from expanding into Ukraine, and after the United States on Thursday accused the Kremlin of an elaborate plot to fabricating an attack by Ukrainian forces that Russia could use as a pretext for military action.

The United States has not provided detailed information supporting these claims, which Moscow has vehemently denied.

While France is a major player in NATO and is moving troops to Romania as part of the alliance’s preparation for possible Russian action, Mr. Macron has also actively pushed for dialogue with Mr. Putin and talked about several times in recent weeks.

A Ukrainian serviceman walks through a damaged building at a frontline position outside Avdiivka, Donetsk (AP)

The two men will hold a one-on-one meeting on Monday, Mr Macron’s office said.

Mr. Macron is following a French tradition of distancing himself from the United States in geopolitics, while trying to make his own mark in the crisis and defend the interests of Europe.

Germany has stressed the importance of various diplomatic formats to deal with tensions and has refused to send arms to Ukraine, upsetting some allies. Mr Scholz has also faced criticism at home of late for keeping a low public profile during the crisis.

After weeks of talks in various diplomatic formats leading to no major concessions from Russia and the United States, it is unclear what impact these trips will have. But Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that “high-level visits seriously reduce challenges in the security sphere and upset the Kremlin’s plans.”

On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with Kuleba to discuss strengthening the Russian military and measures “to encourage Russia to pursue diplomacy in the face of war and to provide security and stability”.

Mr. Blinken reaffirmed the willingness of the United States and its allies “to impose swift and severe consequences on Russia if it chooses to escalate,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

During a call on Wednesday with US President Joe Biden, Mr Macron briefed him on his diplomatic efforts. In talks with Russian and Ukrainian leaders on Thursday evening, Macron’s office said it had discussed ways “to identify the elements likely to lead to de-escalation” and “the conditions for a strategic balance in Europe, which should reduce the risks on earth and guarantee security on the continent”.

Mr. Scholz has a previously scheduled meeting with Mr. Biden in Washington on Monday.

Vladimir Poutine
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics (AP)

Moscow has signaled an apparent readiness for more talks with Washington and NATO in recent days. Some experts say that as long as Russia and the West keep talking, there is reason for cautious optimism.

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, raising fears of another invasion of Moscow, as it did in 2014. The troop presence and uncertainty have baffled Ukrainians and harmed the country’s economy.

The Kremlin has denied that an invasion is planned and demanded guarantees from the West that Ukraine will never join the bloc, that the deployment of NATO weapons near Russia’s borders will be halted and that the forces of the alliance will be pushed back from Eastern Europe.

China backed the demands after Putin met Chinese President Xi Jingping in Beijing ahead of the opening of the Winter Olympics. After the talks, the two leaders issued an elaborate joint statement, declaring their opposition to any NATO expansion.

“The Chinese side welcomes and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe,” the statement said.

Separately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered to mediate the talks between Russia and Ukraine.

Mr Erdogan visited Kiev this week and, upon his return to Turkey, accused Western leaders of failing to make a positive contribution to resolving tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Mr Erdogan also said that Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky strongly supports a Turkish proposal for mediation to reduce tensions between the two nations.

“Unfortunately, the West has not brought anything to a solution to this problem,” Erdogan said. “They just create obstacles.”

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