© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony to present the highest state awards at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia February 2, 2022. Sputnik/Sergey Karpuhin/Pool via REUTERS
By Michel Rose and Dmitry Antonov
MOSCOW (Reuters) -French President Emmanuel Macron, the top Western leader to visit Moscow since Russia began massing troops on the border with Ukraine, told Vladimir Putin at the start of talks in the Kremlin on Monday that he aimed to avoid war and build trust.
Macron, who is expected to seek re-election in April, has positioned himself as a potential mediator on Ukraine with Paris voicing scepticism about predictions by Washington, London and other Western capitals that a Russian assault is imminent.
Macron told the Russian president he was seeking a “useful” response “that of course allows us to avoid war and to build bricks of trust, stability, visibility”. Putin, for his part, said Russia and France shared “a common concern about what is happening in the security sphere in Europe”.
“I see how much efforts the current leadership of France and the president personally is applying in order to solve the crisis related to providing equal security in Europe for a serious historical perspective,” Putin said.
On the eve of his trip to Moscow, Macron told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper: “The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU.”
On his arrival, Macron told reporters: “I’m reasonably optimistic but I don’t believe in spontaneous miracles.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said ahead of the talks: “The situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in the course of one meeting.”
Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders. It denies planning an invasion, but says it is ready to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if its demands are not met, including a promise by NATO never to admit Ukraine and to withdraw some troops from Eastern Europe.
Washington has rejected those demands as non-starters but says it is willing to talk about arms control and confidence-building steps, which Moscow says are beside the point.
“In recent days there has been nothing new on the topic of security guarantees for Russia. Our Western interlocutors prefer not to mention this topic,” Peskov said.
The United States and its allies have ruled out defending Ukraine with military force but say they would respond to any invasion with sanctions, arms shipments and reinforcement of NATO countries nearby.
Last week U.S. President Joe Biden ordered nearly 3,000 U.S. troops to deploy in Poland and Romania to better protect NATO’s eastern flank. A U.S. general arrived in Poland on Saturday and the bulk of the new forces due there were expected on Monday.
Germany announced on Monday it would deploy 350 troops to Lithuania to reinforce a NATO battle group there.
An influential Russian-backed separatist commander in eastern Ukraine urged Moscow to send 30,000 soldiers https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-donetsk-exlusive/exclusive-senior-separatist-urges-russia-to-send-30000-troops-to-east-ukraine-idUSKBN2KC1S8 to reinforce rebel forces fighting in the breakaway Donetsk region and to operate new weapons systems he hopes Russia will supply.
Another separatist leader said full-scale war could break out there at any time. Kyiv says 15,000 people have been killed in fighting between government and separatist forces in the region since 2014.
In London, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Russian concerns about potential NATO aggression were “fundamentally unfounded as NATO is a defensive alliance at its heart”. He said Britain wanted to work with Moscow to provide it with reassurance on that point.
Russia, however, sees NATO’s addition of 14 new east European members since the Cold War ended three decades ago as an encroachment on its sphere of influence and a threat to its security.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promised unequivocal support for Ukraine on Monday as she headed to Kyiv for her second trip in three weeks.
Germany said last month it would send 5,000 military helmets to Ukraine – an offer derided https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-germany-idCAKBN2K01DZ by Kyiv’s mayor as “a joke” as Ukraine seeks weapons to defend itself.
Germany has ruled out sending lethal weapons for historical reasons arising from its role in the world wars of the 20th Century, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said he would raise the issue again with Baerbock.
“Germany has repeatedly and publicly explained this decision. We consider these explanations regarding Ukraine to be unfair. We believe that there is a wider space for Germany to act,” he said.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office last year after 16 years of leadership by Angela Merkel, was due to meet Biden at the White House on Monday and will visit Kyiv next week.
Under fire at home and abroad for showing insufficient leadership in the crisis, Scholz told reporters before the Oval Office meeting that Russia would pay a very high price if it invaded Ukraine.