French President Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself at the center of Europe’s furious diplomatic maneuvering over Ukraine, said on Monday the continent was at a “critical crossroads” during his meeting in Moscow with the Russian president. Vladimir V. Putin.
Amid fears over Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine, Mr Putin and Mr Macron met in the Kremlin, sitting about 20ft apart at a long table to maintain a distance social. In a televised opening speech, the Russian president addressed his French counterpart using the informal form of the address and praised France for trying to resolve “fundamental questions of European security”.
Mr Macron said 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.”
Later, President Biden was to hold his first meeting with the new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in hopes of bolstering Western nations’ response to Russia. Mr Putin is demanding a withdrawal of NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and has massed troops near Ukraine’s borders – around 130,000 according to US and Ukrainian officials, in what they say appears to be preparing for a full-scale military assault.
As the Biden administration draws a hard line against Moscow, Germany remains tight-lipped so far and Mr Putin seems determined to impose a solution to Russia’s security grievances, Mr Macron has emerged as a key player in Europe’s attempts to alleviate one of the continent’s problems. most serious security crises since the end of the cold war. He was to continue his diplomatic relations on Tuesday with a visit to Ukraine and a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev.
Mr Macron has called for a more conciliatory approach to Mr Putin than the US and Britain have done, and the two presidents have spoken to each other several times recently over the phone.
On Monday, Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry S. Peskov, said the Kremlin expected “a very substantial and lengthy conversation” at a meeting and a working dinner, which would be followed by a joint press conference.
“Of course, the situation is too complicated to expect breakthroughs from just one meeting,” Peskov said. “But we know that, and Macron told Putin that he would bring ideas that could help defuse tensions, and that he planned to share those ideas.”
French officials said that in his meetings with Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Macron would seek to use the Normandy format – a grouping of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia – to strengthen the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement which secured a ceasefire between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In an interview published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche, a French newspaper, Macron said he did not believe Russia’s goal was to take over Ukraine, but to “clarify the rules of coexistence” with NATO and the European Union. Russia has called on Western countries to bring their presence in Eastern Europe back to mid-1990s levels. Macron said Russia has the right to ask for security guarantees, while stressing that a ” effective and lasting dialogue” with Russia would not lead to the “weakening” of the States of the region which fear Russian aggression.
On Monday, Mr Macron tweeted: “Let’s start building a response that is useful to Russia, useful to all of our Europe, a response that helps us avoid war and build all the elements of confidence, stability, visibility . Together.”
Its position has at times been the opposite of that of the United States, which has flatly rejected Mr. Putin’s main security demands. Last week, Mr Biden ordered the deployment of 3,000 additional US troops to help secure NATO allies in Eastern Europe, although he stressed he would not send forces in Ukraine.
Russia has denied plans to invade Ukraine and accused the United States of stoking tensions. On Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Washington and its British allies were demonizing Moscow in order “to divert public attention from domestic political crises, invest billions of dollars in weapons “fragile democracies” and to use the situation to reinforce their “invincible” image, tarnished by the debacle in Afghanistan.