Russian President Vladimir Putin said diplomatic efforts need to intensify to find a resolution to the Ukraine crisis, a signal Moscow may be ready to discuss ways to walk back the threat of war in Europe.
After a call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday, Putin blamed NATO for “pumping modern weapons and ammunition” into Ukraine.
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The phone conversation came two weeks after Macron went to Moscow to persuade Putin to refrain from sending troops massed on the border into Ukraine.
A Kremlin statement said Putin and Macron discussed the supply of weapons and ammunition by NATO countries to Ukraine, which the Kremlin said was pushing Kyiv towards a “military solution” against separatists in the country’s east.
“As a result civilians … who have to evacuate to Russia to escape the intensifying shelling suffer,” the Kremlin said.
It added: “The presidents believe it is important to intensify efforts to find solutions through diplomatic means.”
Putin and Macron agreed these efforts should be carried out by foreign ministers and representatives from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, which make up the Normandy negotiations group.
‘Cocked and loaded’
The Russian leader told Macron that Western countries should give concrete and point-by-point responses to demands set by Moscow last December to limit the West’s role in eastern Europe and ex-Soviet countries.
“Vladimir Putin reiterated the need for the United States and NATO to take Russian demands for security guarantees seriously,” the Kremlin’s statement said.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, told Al Jazeera that Russian forces were “cocked and loaded and ready to go”, but he added “is the political climate good for that – I’m not so sure”.
“Macron is trying to do something but the problem is he can’t really put pressure on Russia if it doesn’t want to do it … and he can’t put pressure on the United States, too. So his mediation is rather not very qualified,” said Felgenhauer.
Russia extended military drills near Ukraine’s northern borders amid increased fears that two days of sustained shelling along the contact line between soldiers and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine could prompt an invasion. Ukraine’s president appealed for a ceasefire.
The exercises were originally set to end on Sunday and brought a sizable contingent of Russian forces to Belarus. The presence of the Russian troops raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, a city of about three million people less than a three-hour drive away.
NATO has estimated there are 30,000 Russian troops in Belarus.
‘Intense diplomatic work’
Western leaders warned Russia was poised to attack its neighbour, which is surrounded on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment. Russia held nuclear drills on Saturday as well as the conventional exercises in Belarus, and has ongoing naval drills off the coast in the Black Sea.
A top European Union official, Charles Michel, said: “The big question remains: does the Kremlin want dialogue? We cannot forever offer an olive branch while Russia conducts missile tests and continues to amass troops,” said Michel, the president of the European Council.
In the phone conversation lasting 105 minutes, Macron’s office said he and Putin agreed on “the need to favour a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis and to do everything to achieve one”, adding French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov would meet “in the coming days”.
Putin and Macron said they would work “intensely” to allow the Trilateral Contact Group – which includes Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – to meet “in the next few hours with the aim of getting all interested parties to commit to a ceasefire at the contact line” in eastern Ukraine, where government troops and pro-Russian separatists are facing each other.
“Intense diplomatic work will take place in the coming days,” Macron’s office said, with several consultations to take place in the French capital.
Biden will meet Putin ‘any time’
Macron and Putin also agreed that talks between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany should resume to implement the so-called Minsk protocol, which in 2014 had already called for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
Both also agreed to work towards “a high-level meeting with the aim of defining a new peace and security order in Europe”, Macron’s office said.
US President Joe Biden, meanwhile, is willing to meet Putin “at any time” to prevent a war in Ukraine, according to his top diplomat.
“Until the tanks are actually rolling and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN.
He later told CBS’s Face the Nation that Biden has made “very clear that he’s prepared to meet President Putin at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war”.
The two leaders last spoke by telephone on February 12, according to the White House.
Blinken added in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press: “I reached out to Foreign Minister Lavrov some days ago suggesting we meet this coming week in Europe to see if we can pursue conversations that would allow us to prevent a war and address the security concerns that we all have – the United States, Europe and Russia in that conversation.
“He came back and said, ‘Yeah let’s meet.’ And we responded and said the meeting is on – provided you don’t invade Ukraine in the meantime.”