French president Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday said he had obtained assurances from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that there would be no “deterioration or escalation” of the crisis over Ukraine.
Macron was speaking on the way to Kyiv, where he met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky after more than five hours of talks on Monday night with Putin in Moscow.
Macron’s tour is the latest western diplomatic attempt to de-escalate tensions caused by Russia’s military build-up of more than 100,000 troops around Ukraine.
“For me it was about arranging things to prevent an escalation and open up new avenues . . . and that aim has been fulfilled,” Macron told reporters accompanying him on the plane, according to AFP, while acknowledging that Putin was “determined, pretty sure of himself and making his own arguments”.
After meeting Zelensky in Kyiv, Macron added that Putin had made commitments about Russian military movements in Belarus on Ukraine’s northern border as well as a broader pledge not to escalate.
“He said he would not be the instigator of an escalation,” Macron said during a press conference, cautioning, however that, “no one (was) naive”.
He noted: “The recent deployments are linked to a tense situation and you didn’t hear me announce anything on this yesterday.”
Russia said Putin and Macron were “prepared to continue dialogue” on the French proposals but that the discussions had yet to assuage Moscow’s concerns or come to an agreement.
“It’s impossible because France is a member of the EU, and of Nato, where it is not the leader. A different country in that bloc is the leader. So how can we speak about any ‘agreements’?” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday.
Western leaders are mounting an eleventh-hour flurry of diplomacy in the hope of convincing Putin to stand down from what they believe could be plans for a renewed invasion of Ukraine.
Analysts say any Russian military action would eclipse the casualty toll from the separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas border region, where more than 14,000 have died in the past eight years. Ukraine and the US say Russia is fuelling the Donbas war by providing troops and weaponry. Moscow, which invaded and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, officially denies helping the Donbas separatists against Kyiv.
Russia has stationed more than 106,000 troops at its border with Ukraine and is holding exercises in neighbouring Belarus with about 30,000 extra troops.
Putin has denied he is planning to invade and has blamed the US and Nato, which he accuses of ignoring Moscow’s security needs. Western officials have said Russia’s main demands — that Ukraine never join Nato and that the western military alliance roll back its presence — are unacceptable. They have sought instead to address other issues such as arms control.
During their press conference, Macron and Zelensky denied reports that a “Finlandisation” of Ukraine, or making it a neutral country by dropping current ambitions to join the Nato military alliance, had been discussed.
“I didn’t make any comparisons,” Macron said. “I said [to Putin] that ending Nato’s open doors would pose a problem for several European states, including Finland and Sweden for example,” he added, referring to fresh debates in those neutral countries about the option of joining the alliance. He added that he had “never used” the word Finlandisation, contrary to what reports in several news outlets earlier on Tuesday had suggested.
Zelensky said “’Finlandisation’ of Ukraine . . . This is the first time I’m hearing it.”
Peskov said Russian forces, some of which have travelled from as far as the Pacific in recent weeks, would leave Belarus after the drills but declined to give a date for their withdrawal.
Macron insisted later on Tuesday after meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish president Andrzej Duda in Berlin that Putin and Zelensky had committed to re-engaging in the so-called “Normandy format” talks — involving Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany — to keep negotiations moving forward.
“We have to find the ways and means to have this challenging and important dialogue with Russia in different formats,” he said. “In the coming days and weeks, we will have talks in the Normandy format, because that is the political framework for resolving the Ukraine crisis.
Another session of the Normandy talks will be held in Berlin on Thursday, he added, although deep differences remain between Moscow and Kyiv on how to implement the faltering 2015 Minsk agreements.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, reacted cautiously to Macron’s comments about a possible de-escalation.
“We’re encouraged by any efforts at diplomacy,” Psaki said. “If there is diplomatic progress, we would welcome that, but we will believe it when we see it with our own eyes at the border”.
“We still don’t have any prediction of what President Putin will do. We can’t control what Russia will do next. What I think President Macron played a role in doing yesterday is making clear . . . that there will be massive consequences should Putin choose to further invade Ukraine,” Psaki said.
Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Moscow and James Politi in Washington