French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Europe kicked off its own parallel diplomatic effort to defuse tensions between East and West at a meeting in Moscow on February 7.
The negotiations so far have been led by the US, but this week a bevvy of European politicians are in Kyiv and Moscow. On the same day Macron arrived in Moscow, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was in Kyiv and several leaders from Czechia, Slovakia and Austria were in Kyiv. At the same time, the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington to meet with US President Joe Biden to discuss the crisis.
"This discussion can make a start in the direction in which we need to go, which is towards a de-escalation," Macron told Putin at the start of their meeting.
Macron added that he hoped to "avoid a war" and "build elements of confidence, stability and visibility for everyone."
Putin responded that Moscow and Paris had “common concerns over the security situation in Europe,” and that “France has for years worked towards a solution to the Ukraine conflict.”
Macron expressed guarded optimism after landing in Moscow following a phone conversation with both the Russian leader and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the day before by phone.
"I'm reasonably optimistic but I don't believe in spontaneous miracles," Macron told reporters shortly after landing in the Russian capital.
"The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with Nato and the EU,” Macron told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper ahead of his trip, echoing the Kremlin’s recent comments.
"We will not obtain unilateral gestures, but it is essential to prevent a deterioration of the situation before building mechanisms and reciprocal gestures of trust," he said of his hopes for his talks with Putin.
In its summary of the earlier call, the Elysée Palace said that Macron had highlighted to both sides the importance of articulating the terms of de-escalation and the conditions of a strategic balance in Europe.
Russian state-owned media Tass reported on February 7 that expectations of progress during the visit to Moscow are low, but quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as recommending waiting for the president’ assessments after the talks.
Europe gets into the game
So far the US has taken the lead in the No Nato crisis and the EU has been largely sidelined. That has changed this week as leading European politicians have got into the fray and France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
The Nato expansion talks between Russia and the West started with a Geneva meeting on January 10 between US Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, continued with a Brussels meeting on January 12 of the Nato Council and ended back in Geneva with a meeting of the OSCE council on January 13. While the EU leader participated in the second two meetings as members of those bodies, the EU itself has not held talks with Russia until now.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, Macron has now launched his own parallel diplomatic process to try to bring an end to the crisis.
While Macron was in Moscow, the German, Czech, Slovak and Austrian foreign ministers were visiting Kyiv for a two-day trip. German’s Baerbock made her second visit to Kyiv in a month and was on the ground in Kyiv to meet top Ukrainian leaders, although her meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was cancelled at the last minute because of “scheduling problems” in what some see as a snub after Berlin refused to send Ukraine more defensive weapons last week.
Analysts say that while this European diplomatic drive to resolve the crisis is on, Russia is unlikely to launch a military offensive, as the Kremlin is still holding out hope for an agreement on its key demand: Ukraine will never be offered Nato membership.
“The high-profile diplomatic effort will continue through next week, and many observers are looking at February 20, when both the [Beijing] Olympics and military manoeuvres in Belarus will end. Because the manoeuvres themselves are under close observation, there is little expectation that a further invasion of Ukraine would start from there at that time,” James Hydzik of Concorde Capital in Kyiv said in a note.
Normandy Four restarts
Macron is pushing for a diplomatic settlement based on the Normandy Four negotiations, according to France 24, which is a possible alternative solution to the blanket ban on Ukraine’s application to join Nato that the Kremlin is demanding. Talk of autonomy for the Donbas region surfaced in comments by several leaders on February 7, including by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Brussels with the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, where Blinken was attending an energy conference with EU leaders.
Blinken said that he believes Ukraine could “move forward with implementing a special status for the Donbas” region with "appropriate sequencing". He went on to add that steps towards this status should be taken in accordance with the Minsk agreements.
"The [Minsk] agreements speak of special status for the Donbas and I believe that with the appropriate sequencing, Ukrainians would be prepared to move forward," Blinken said, as cited by the Russian newswire Sputnik, adding that the Minsk II agreement is the “only way to bring peace to Ukraine’s east.”
Blinken was attending the EU-US Energy Council, a body that has not met for four years, and Borrell admitted that “energy was high on the agenda.” Europe and the US have clashed over the future of Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that Berlin wants to see go ahead but which Washington wants to kill. Energy concerns lurk in the background of the current stand-off, as since the US went from a net importer of gas to a net exporter, following the shale gas revolution, it has become the biggest supplier of LNG to Europe and wants to sell more.
“Our joint work is needed to accelerate a green energy transition, to become neutral from the point of view of the climate in the future. In the medium term there is the climate neutrality, in the short term it is security of supplies of gas. Both things go together,” Borrell said in a joint press conference following his meeting with Blinken.
Putin is keeping the diplomatic channels open and has so far not reacted to a letter from the US Department of State in answer to the eight-point list of demands issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry in the middle of December.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signalled that Moscow was pleased with the letter that offered to start negotiations on several points on the MFA list, but that the US had rejected the key article calling for Ukraine to be permanently excluded from Nato membership.
The main thrust of Macron’s approach seems to be to conclude the Minsk II agreements agreed in 2014, which have not been fulfilled by either Moscow or Kyiv. If the deal were fully implemented it could not only bring fighting in the Donbas to an end, but would also provide Moscow with a de facto guarantee that Ukraine can never join Nato. One of the key elements of the agreement is to grant Donbas autonomous status that would leave it under the influence of Moscow. Half the local residents in Donbas already have Russian passports and are dependent on Moscow for their jobs and pay, which has been funding the local budgets. As Nato accession would require all of Ukraine’s regions to sign off on the accession via a referendum, Moscow could in effect block any vote for accession to Nato.
Macron has already hosted the re-launch of the Normandy Four talks in Paris two weeks ago, which are set to continue in Berlin in the coming weeks. Macron was also a co-host with Merkel during the last Normandy Four talks in Paris in December 2019, which then stalled.
Scholz in DC
Concurrent to Marcon’s trip to Moscow, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington the same day to meet Biden. Scholz has been criticised for his low profile in the crisis so far, but he has picked up the pace now and is also due to visit both Kyiv and Moscow next week.
That same day, Germany's defence minister announced the country would send a further 350 troops to Lithuania, to add to Nato's presence there. There are already 500 German troops stationed in the country.
And he has a lot to talk about. As bne IntelliNews has reported, cracks have appeared amongst the western allies as they have very different agendas.
One of the issues high on the German agenda is to keep the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project alive, which former German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted is a “commercial project”. The US has called it a political project that will “undermine European energy security” and wants to see it shut down.
Berlin’s view is that the gas pipeline actually improves European energy security by piping cheap gas directly to Germany’s north shore under the Baltic Sea and avoiding the war zone that is eastern Ukraine. The current gas crisis and soaring prices are due to a 15bn cubic metre gas supply deficit, but with Nord Stream 2 extra 50 bcm per year capacity that crisis could be over tomorrow if the pipe were put into use.
Merkel got Biden to agree to allow the pipeline to go into operation last year before leaving office, but since the invasion talk started even Berlin has agreed that the project would be shuttered should Russia invade Ukraine.
Another bone of contention between Berlin and Washington has been the US suggestion that Russia would be excluded from the SWIFT messaging system that allows for international payments – a so-called nuclear option.
According to a recent report by Handelsblatt, Berlin has taken this option off the table, as it effectively makes it impossible for Germany to pay for its Russian gas imports, whereas the White House says that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to imposing sanctions with “massive consequences” should Russia attack Ukraine. The two leaders will need to have a detailed conversation about exactly which sanctions will be imposed, as many of the worst sanctions have a boomerang effect that will inflict real economic pain on Europe in addition to hurting Russia.
The European diplomatic drive comes at a time when US officials continue to issue dire warnings of an impending catastrophe. At the weekend unnamed US officials said Moscow had assembled 70% of the military force needed for a full-scale invasion and that casualties could be as high as 75,000 dead Ukrainian servicemen and civilians should Russia invade.
The American officials say they were briefed that an operation was been prepared to quickly capture the capital Kyiv, toppling Zelenskiy and rapidly occupying the country.
Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba quickly dismissed the reports as unrealistic.
“Do not believe the apocalyptic predictions. Different capitals have different scenarios, but Ukraine is ready for any development,” he tweeted in Ukrainian only, suggesting the message was intended for a domestic audience.
“Today Ukraine has a strong army, unprecedented international support, and Ukrainians' faith in their country. The enemy should be afraid of us, not us of them.”
The chances of finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis remained “substantially higher than the threat of further escalation”, added Ukraine's presidency adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
Zelenskiy's government has in recent weeks played down the Russian threat, saying the situation since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia was “stable” and that “nothing has changed.”