MOSCOW: French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday he hoped to make a start towards a de-escalation of tensions over Ukraine, as he began talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
Macron flew into Moscow at the start of a week of intense Western diplomacy aimed at easing fears of a Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
Sitting across a long table from Putin at the Kremlin, Macron said he was in Moscow to address the “critical situation” in Europe.
“This discussion can make a start in the direction in which we need to go, which is towards a de-escalation,” Macron said, calling for “an answer that is useful for both Russia and for all the rest of Europe”.
Welcoming Macron as “dear Emmanuel”, Putin said Russia and France have “shared concerns regarding security in Europe” and hailed “how much effort the current French leadership is making” to resolve these concerns.
With tens of thousands of Russian troops camped near the Ukrainian border, Macron was the first top Western leader to meet Putin since the crisis began in December.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meet Monday with US President Joe Biden in Washington, as Western leaders look to maintain a united front in their biggest showdown with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
US officials say Moscow has assembled 110,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and is on track to amass a large enough force — some 150,000 soldiers — for a full-scale invasion by mid-February.
Russia insists it has no plans to attack and has instead put forward its own demands for security guarantees that it says would ease tensions.
Macron, who will go on to Kiev on Tuesday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told reporters on his plane from Paris that he was “reasonably” optimistic going into the talks.
He did not expect a solution to the crisis in the “short term”, he said, but he was ready to take Russia’s security concerns seriously.
Moscow has accused the West, in particular Washington and Nato, of ignoring what it says are legitimate concerns for its security.
It is demanding a permanent ban on Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, joining the US-led alliance and that the bloc roll back its military presence in eastern Europe.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday’s talks between Macron and Putin were “very important” but suggested no one should expect a major step forward.
“The situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in one meeting,” Peskov told reporters.
Macron, whose country currently heads the European Union and who is facing a re-election challenge in April, has tried to position himself as the key EU figure in negotiations with Russia. He has spoken to Putin by phone several times over the past week and held a 40-minute call with Biden on Sunday.
Macron is expected to try to push forward a stalled peace plan for the festering conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and could make offers to Russia for consultations on arms control and Nato expansion.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters that Kiev would not budge on its “red lines” in the conflict by giving up any territory or agreeing to direct talks with the separatists.
“Ukraine is approaching this process... with a clear understanding of our red lines and without any desire and readiness to make any concessions that will be unacceptable to us,” he told reporters.
Biden has reacted to the Russian troop build-up by offering 3,000 American forces to bolster Nato’s eastern flank, with a batch of the troops arriving in Poland on Sunday.
Britain said Monday that 350 more British troops would be sent to the Polish border and Germany announced that another 350 of its soldiers would go to Lithuania.
While Scholz is in Washington, his foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, was in Kiev along with her Czech, Slovak and Austrian counterparts for a two-day visit.
Kuleba told a joint press conference with Baerbock that Ukraine and its Western allies would never be divided.
“No one, no matter how hard anyone tries in Russia, will be able to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its partners,” he said.
Scholz himself will be in Moscow and Kiev next week for talks with Putin and Zelensky.
Visits to Moscow by the British foreign and defence secretaries are also expected at the end of this week.
Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2022