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French president heads to Russia to try to ease Ukraine tensions

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International efforts to defuse the standoff over Ukraine intensified Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding talks in Moscow and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington to coordinate policies as fears of a Russian invasion mounted.

French President Emmanuel Macron, seen in this photo from September, is set to visit Russia and Ukraine this week.(Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

International efforts to defuse the standoff over Ukraine intensified Monday, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding talks in Moscow and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington to co-ordinate policies as fears of a Russian invasion mounted.

The buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine has fuelled Western worries of a possible offensive. Russia has denied any plans to attack its neighbour but demands that the U.S. and its allies bar Ukraine and other former Soviet countries from joining NATO, halt weapons deployments there and roll back NATO forces from eastern Europe. Washington and NATO reject those demands.

Macron, who was to meet in the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin before heading to Ukraine on Tuesday, spoke by phone Sunday with U.S. President Joe Biden to discuss "ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts," according to the White House.

"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," Macron said in an interview with French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, adding that he believes that "the geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU."

Military instructors and civilians take part in a training session at an abandoned factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Sunday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Macron told reporters that he felt "reasonably optimistic" ahead of his meeting with Putin.

"I don't think there are short-term victories," he said. "We can prevent some things in the short term. I don't believe in spontaneous miracles. There are lots of tensions, nervousness. That's also why I decided to start the discussion a few weeks ago."

Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, described Macron's visit as "very important," but sought to temper expectations, saying "the situation is too complex to expect a decisive breakthrough after just one meeting."

He noted that "the atmosphere has remained tense," adding that the U.S. and its allies have continued to ignore Moscow's security demands.

What's happening on the ground?

  • The concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fuelled Western worries that it heralds a possible offensive, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning 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 U.S. 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.
  • Biden has ordered additional U.S. troops deployed to Poland, Romania and Germany, and a few dozen elite U.S troops and equipment were seen landing Sunday in southeastern Poland, near the border with Ukraine, with hundreds more infantry troops of the 82nd Airborne Division set to arrive.

Continuing the high-level diplomacy, Scholz is to meet with Biden later Monday in Washington. Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv and Moscow on Feb. 14-15.

Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, reiterated Sunday that the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany "will not move forward" if Russia attacks Ukraine.

Biden and Scholz are expected to address the pipeline during their first face-to-face meeting since Scholz became the head of the German government nearly two months ago.

Ahead of the visit, the White House sought to play down Germany's refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troops in eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia — a cautious stand that has drawn criticism abroad and inside Germany.

White House officials, who briefed reporters ahead of the meeting on the condition of anonymity, noted that Germany has been a top contributor of non-military aid to Ukraine and has been supportive of the U.S. decision to bolster its troop presence in Poland and Romania to demonstrate its commitment to NATO.

German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht raised the possibility Sunday that the country could send more troops to Lithuania to reinforce NATO's eastern flank.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal for eastern Ukraine in a bid to end the conflict 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 of 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 industrial heartland known as the 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 buildup, presidential advisers from the four countries met in Paris on Jan. 26 but didn't 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 special status to the restive east.

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 restive region 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 the separatist 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 Defence 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 hand.

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the country has received weapons and military supplies from its allies, noting that a series of visits by Western officials has helped deter Russia.

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