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Macron heads to Moscow in bid to ease Ukraine tensions

French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to ease tensions over Ukraine. Picture by Yoan Valat/AP
Sylvie Corbet and Vladimir Ishachenko, AP

French president Emmanuel Macron is set to hold talks in Moscow in a bid to to help de-escalate the tense situation around Ukraine.

The concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fuelled Western worries that it heralds a possible invasion, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning on Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine “any day”, triggering a conflict that would come at an “enormous human cost”.

Russia has denied any plans to attack its neighbour, but is urging the US and its allies to bar Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations from joining Nato, halt weapons deployments there and roll back Nato forces from eastern Europe. Washington and Nato have rejected the demands.

Mr Macron, who is set to meet in the Kremlin with Russian president Vladimir Putin before visiting Ukraine on Tuesday, said last week that his priority is “dialogue with Russia and de-escalation”.

Before heading to Moscow, Mr Macron had a call on Sunday with US president Joe Biden. The leaders discussed “ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, and affirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, the White House said in a statement.

The French presidency said Mr Macron sought to ensure “good co-ordination” with Mr Biden in the call.

In an interview with French newspaper Journal du Dimanche published on Sunday, Mr Macron said that “we won’t get unilateral gestures but it is indispensable to prevent a degradation of the situation before building confidence gestures and mechanisms”.

He added: “The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU.

“The security and sovereignty of Ukraine or any other European state cannot be a subject for compromise, while it is also legitimate for Russia to pose the question of its own security.”

Continuing the high-level diplomacy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to meet with Mr Biden on Monday for talks expected to focus on the Ukrainian stand-off.

Mr Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15.

Mr Scholz has said that Moscow would pay a “high price” in the event of an attack, but his government has faced criticism over its refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troop presence in eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia if it invades.

On Sunday, German defence minister Christine Lambrecht raised the possibility that the country could send more troops to Lithuania to reinforce its presence on Nato’s eastern flank.

Mr Biden has ordered additional US troops to be deployed to Poland, Romania and Germany, and a few dozen elite US troops and equipment were seen landing on Sunday in south-eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, with hundreds more infantry troops of the 82nd Airborne Division set to arrive.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal for eastern Ukraine in a bid to end the hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists that erupted the previous year following the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The agreement signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, helped stop large-scale fighting, but efforts at a political settlement have stalled and frequent skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last met in Paris in December 2019 in the so-called Normandy format summit, but they failed to resolve main conflicting issues.

Amid the tensions over the Russian military build-up, presidential advisers from the four countries held talks in Paris on January 26, but they did not make any visible progress and agreed to meet again in Berlin in two weeks.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has pushed for another four-way Normandy summit, but the Kremlin said a meeting of leaders would only make sense if the parties agree on the next steps to give a special status to the rebel east.

Mr Putin and his officials have urged France, Germany and other Western allies to encourage Ukraine to fulfil its obligations under the 2015 agreement, which envisaged a broad autonomy for the rebel east and a sweeping amnesty for the separatists.

The agreement stipulated that only after those conditions are met would Ukraine be able to restore control of its border with Russia in rebel regions.

The Minsk deal was seen as a betrayal of national interests by many in Ukraine and its implementation has stalled.

Amid the latest tensions, Ukrainian authorities have strongly warned the West against pressuring Ukraine to implement the agreement.

Last week, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press that an attempt by Ukraine to fulfil the Minsk deal could trigger internal unrest that would play into Moscow’s hands.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba noted that Moscow wants the rebel regions reintegrated into Ukraine in order to use them to effectively block the country’s pro-Western aspirations, vowing that “this is not going to happen”.

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