KIEV, FEBRUARY 8: President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has positioned himself at the centre of Europe’s furious diplomatic maneuvering over Ukraine, said on Monday that the continent was at a “critical crossroads” as he opened a meeting in Moscow with President Vladimir V Putin of Russia.
Amid fears over Russia’s military build-up surrounding Ukraine, Putin and Macron met at the Kremlin, sitting some 20 feet apart at a long table to maintain social distancing. In televised opening remarks, the Russian President spoke to his French counterpart using the informal form of address, and praised France for trying to resolve the “fundamental questions of European security”.
Macron said that he hoped the meeting would begin a process of de-escalation, adding: “This dialogue is absolutely essential, more than ever, to ensure the security and stability of the European continent.”
President Biden was scheduled to hold his first meeting with Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in the hope of strengthening western nations’ response to Russia. Putin is demanding a rollback of NATO’s presence in eastern Europe, and has massed troops near Ukraine’s borders ~ about 130,000 according to US and Ukrainian officials, in what they say appears to be preparation for a full-scale military assault.
With the US staking out a hard line against Moscow, Germany so far lying low and Putin seemingly determined to force a solution to Russia’s security grievances, Macron has emerged as a key player in Europe’s attempts to ease one of the continent’s gravest security crises since the end of the Cold War.
Macron was scheduled to continue his diplomatic outreach on Tuesday with a visit to Ukraine and a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev. Macron has urged a more conciliatory approach towards Putin than the US and Britain have taken.
On Monday, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S Peskov, said the Kremlin expected “a very substantive and lengthy conversation” during a meeting and working dinner, which will be followed by a joint news conference.
“Of course, the situation is too complicated to expect some breakthroughs as a result of just one meeting”, Peskov said. “But we know, and Macron told Putin that he will bring some ideas that could help de-escalate tensions, and that he plans to share these ideas.”
French officials said that in his meetings with Putin and Zelensky, Macron would seek to use the Normandy Format ~ a grouping of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia ~ to bolster the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement that secured a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In an interview published on Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche, a French newspaper, Macron said that he did not believe Russia’s goal was to seize Ukraine, but to “clarify the rules of cohabitation” with NATO and the EU.
Russia has called for western countries to scale back their presence in Eastern Europe to mid-1990s levels. Macron said that Russia had a right to seek security guarantees, while emphasising that “efficient and lasting dialogue” with Russia would not lead to the “weakening” of regional states that fear Russian aggression.