French President Emmanuel Macron was in Moscow on Monday hoping to find common ground with Vladimir Putin on Ukraine and NATO, at the start of a week of intense diplomacy amid fears that Russia is preparing a invasion of its pro-Western neighbour.
With tens of thousands of Russian soldiers camped near the Ukrainian border, Macron will be the first senior Western leader to meet Putin since the crisis began in December.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will also meet US President Joe Biden in Washington on Monday as Western leaders seek to maintain a united front in their biggest showdown with Russia since the end of the Cold War.
US officials say Moscow has amassed 110,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and is on track to muster a large enough force – some 150,000 troops – for a full-scale invasion by mid-February. .
Russia insists it has no intention of attacking and has instead put forward its own demands for security guarantees which it says would ease tensions.
Macron, who will travel to Kyiv on Tuesday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told reporters on his plane from Paris that he was “reasonably” optimistic at the start of the talks.
He said he did not expect a “short-term” solution to the crisis, but was prepared to take Russia’s security concerns seriously.
– “Very important” interviews –
“You have to try…to see where there are points of disagreement and possible points of convergence” in order to find “an equation that makes military de-escalation possible,” Macron said.
But he said NATO would never agree to a “deep change” in its policy and that no compromise could be found on Ukrainian issues “without the Ukrainians”.
Moscow has accused the West, particularly Washington and NATO, of ignoring what it sees as legitimate concerns for its security.
It demands a permanent ban on Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, from joining the US-led alliance and for the bloc to cancel 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 big step forward.
“The situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in one meeting,” Peskov told reporters.
Macron, whose country currently leads the European Union and faces a re-election challenge in April, has tried to position himself as the key EU figure in negotiations with Russia.
He spoke 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 escalating conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and could make offers to Russia for consultations over control armaments and NATO enlargement.
– Ukrainian ‘red lines’ –
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 or willingness to make concessions that will be unacceptable to us,” he told reporters in Kyiv.
The United States has taken the lead in warnings of an invasion, with officials in Washington citing intelligence assessments over the weekend that Russia has stepped up preparations for an invasion.
Such a force would be able to take Kiev within 48 hours in an assault that would kill up to 50,000 civilians, 25,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 10,000 Russian troops and trigger an influx of refugees of up to five million people, mostly in Poland, officials said.
Ahead of talks between Scholz and Biden, Germany announced it would send up to 350 more troops to Lithuania to help bolster NATO’s eastern flank, following similar deployments by the United States.
While Scholz is in Washington, his foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, will be in Kyiv with her Czech, Slovak and Austrian counterparts for a two-day visit.
Scholz himself will be in Moscow and Kiev next week for talks with Putin and Zelensky.
Visits to Moscow by British foreign and defense ministers are also expected at the end of the week.