French President Emmanuel Macron, the first leader of a major Western power to meet Vladimir Putin since Russia massed troops near Ukraine, said on Tuesday he believed steps can be taken to de-escalate the crisis and called on all sides to stay calm.
Macron, who in contrast to the U.S. and British leaders, has played down the likelihood that Russia may soon invade its neighbour, shuttled from Moscow to Kyiv on Tuesday in a high-profile bid to act as a mediator.
The French president had no breakthroughs to announce — his office rowed back on Tuesday after an official said overnight that Putin had promised him Russia would not stage military manoeuvres near Ukraine for the time being.
But Macron said he thought his talks had helped prevent the crisis from escalating further. Both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had told him they were committed to the principles of a 2014 peace agreement, he said, adding that this deal, known as the Minsk accords, offered a path to resolving their ongoing disputes.
“This shared determination is the only way allowing us to create peace, the only way to create a viable political solution,” Macron told a joint news conference with Zelenskiy.
“Calm … is essential from all parties in words and in deeds,” Macron said, praising Zelenskiy for “the sangfroid that you are showing, and which the Ukrainian people are showing, in the face of military pressure on your borders and on your country”.
Zelenskiy, for his part, made clear he was sceptical of any assurances Macron may have received from Putin.
“I do not really trust words, I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps,” the Ukrainian leader said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Macron defended the outcome of his talks in Moscow on Monday, which brought no major breakthrough, telling reporters he had never expected “for one second” that Putin would make concessions.
WESTERN FEARS OF AN INVASION
Western countries led by the United States fear Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine. Moscow says it is planning no invasion but could take unspecified “military-technical measures” unless a number of security demands are met, including a promise from NATO never to admit Kyiv.
The United States and the European Union have threatened Russia with sanctions if it attacks Ukraine. Moscow, still Europe’s biggest energy supplier despite already being under sanctions since seizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, has largely dismissed new sanctions as an empty threat.
U.S. President Joe Biden warned on Monday that if Russia invades Ukraine, “there will be no longer Nord Stream 2”, referring to a newly built, as yet unopened gas pipeline to Germany. He did not specify how he would halt it.
While Western countries have stood together to back Ukraine, they disagree about the likelihood of war. French officials have suggested they think Washington has overstated the threat, and Kyiv itself has also played down the likelihood of a large-scale invasion.
Macron, who is expected to stand for re-election in April, said before he left on his trip to Moscow that he believed Russia did not have designs on Ukraine but wanted to renegotiate European security arrangements.
But whatever Moscow’s true aims, Western countries say they cannot safely assume the crisis will end without war unless Russia pulls back its troops.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, asked in an interview with CNN how likely is a Russian invasion, said: “There’s no certainty but what we see is a continued military buildup with more and more forces… The warning time is going down and the risk of an attack is going up.”