Amid growing tensions on the Ukraine Russia border, President of France Emmanuel Macron visited his counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow on Monday in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis.
Though the solution to the showdown is still unclear, and the Kremlin continues to push for security guarantees that the US and NATO have called non-starters, Macron said that he and Putin were beginning to build a “constructive arrangement,” which was “mutually acceptable” to Russia and the rest of Europe to “help us avoid war.”
“This dialogue is absolutely essential, more than ever, to ensure the stability and security of the European continent,” Macron said in remarks aired on Russian state television at a meeting soon after he arrived at the Kremlin.
Putin said the two countries shared “common concern” about the security situation in Europe. He continued to state the issue is about “the resolution of the intra-Ukrainian crisis,” casting the conflict in Donbas as a purely internal matter of Ukraine and avoiding mention of Russia’s role in it.
Based on the latest US intelligence estimates, Russia has assembled 70% of the military personnel and weapons it would need for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, US officials say there’s no indication that Russia’s leader has decided to launch an attack. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied any plans of an incursion.
As the intense meeting unfolded in Moscow, US President Joe Biden met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington, DC on Monday. The main issues discussed were the positions of the two countries on the Ukraine Russia crisis. While the Biden administration demonstrated a united Western front against invasion, Scholz largely watched from the sidelines as the crisis escalated, drawing criticism and questions over Germany’s willingness to confront Moscow.
Ahead of the meeting, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said its government was prepared to enforce “unprecedented sanctions” on Russia if the Kremlin fails to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine. She added, “We will do everything to ensure that there is no further escalation. We have therefore jointly prepared a series of tough measures against Russia for this eventuality.”
Since Scholz succeeded Angela Markel in December, Germany has taken a softer approach on Russia. Scholz has yet to join the US, France, Spain and other allies in bolstering troops along NATO’s eastern flank, nor is Germany willing to provide Ukraine with lethal aid, going further and refusing to allow NATO ally, Estonia, to send German-made howitzers.
Some experts have suggested Germany’s contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which is meant to bring natural gas from Russia to the country, may be the reason why it’s not taking a more prominent role. In an apparent attempt to refute that criticism, Scholz will visit Russia and Ukraine later this month.
What became obvious, Macron has taken Merkel’s place as a leading mediator for Europe, thrusting himself to the center stage as Putin tests the West’s resolve. Currently at the helm of the European Union’s rotating presidency, Macron has spoken several times per week with Putin, and placed his third phone call in a week to Biden on Sunday evening.
According to a statement from the Elysee Palace, Macron and Biden agreed Sunday to capitalize on the “positive progress” made in the Normandy Format — a grouping of France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia — to bolster the Minsk agreements. The ceasefire protocol was signed by Ukraine and Russia in 2015 after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a rebellion in Ukraine’s east. Despite the agreement, the two sides have not seen a stable peace.
There are indicators that the talks between Macron and Moscow went well, and the ground for “the new order of security in Europe, including guarantees of regional security” has been laid. Putin described Macron as a “quality interlocutor,” according to an official in the French presidency.
The stakes are high. Macron is seeking to stop the massive Russian military buildup of more than 100,000 soldiers from bubbling over into war and soothe Russia’s security grievances, which include demands that Ukraine and Georgia be blocked from ever becoming members of the alliance and a drawdown of troops in the region.
“I’m reasonably optimistic but I don’t believe in spontaneous miracles,” Macron told reporters on the flight to the Russian capital, according to CNN affiliate BFM TV, which was traveling with the French president.
Moscow stays less optimistic. “For now, the atmosphere remains extremely tense,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.