French President Emmanuel Macron is set to fly to Moscow in a bid to secure commitments from Russian President Vladimir Putin that will ease tensions over Ukraine.
Ahead of Monday’s trip, the French leader said he hopes to “discuss the terms of a de-escalation” during his talks with Putin.
Following the Moscow visit, Macron will then head to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on Tuesday for talks with the country’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops near its borders with Ukraine, demanding security guarantees from the United States and NATO, including that the alliance reject Ukraine as a member and halt any eastward expansion.
It denies, however, planning an invasion of Ukraine.
The US and NATO have called the Russian demands non-starters and Washington has deployed thousands of additional troops to Eastern Europe. The White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Sunday warned that Putin could order an attack on Ukraine within days or weeks.
But Macron – who spoke to Joe Biden ahead of the trip to Moscow as part of a “coordination logic” – has downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and said his negotiations with Putin are likely to head off a military conflict.
“The geopolitical objective of Russia today is clearly not Ukraine, but to clarify the rules of cohabitation with NATO and the European Union,” he told France’s Le Journal de Dimanche.
“The intensity of the dialogue we have had with Russia and this visit to Moscow are likely to prevent [a military operation] from happening. Then we will discuss the terms of de-escalation,” he said.
But he cautioned that “we have to be very realistic” and that “we will not obtain unilateral gestures from Russia”.
Biden, Macron talk ‘diplomatic and deterrence’
The French leader, who has earned a reputation for highly publicised diplomatic forays since his election in 2017, has both tried to cajole and confront Putin over the past five years.
Soon after taking power, Macron rolled out the red carpet for Putin at the Palace of Versailles, but also used the visit to publicly condemn Russian meddling during the election. Two years later, the pair met at the French president’s summer residence.
Eastern European countries who suffered for decades under Soviet rule have criticised Macron’s stance on Russia, wary of his talk of negotiating a “new European security order” with Russia.
To counter critics ahead of the trip and take on the mantle of European leadership in this crisis, Macron has been at pains to consult with other Western leaders this time, including the UK’s Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden.
During Macron’s 40-minute call with Biden on Sunday, the two leaders “discussed ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders,” the White House said in a statement.
They also “affirmed their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said.
Macron’s trip to Moscow was planned in coordination with Washington and Berlin, according to the Reuters news agency.
Citing two sources close to Macron, the agency said one aim of the French president’s visit was to buy time and freeze the situation for several months, at least until a “Super April” of elections in Europe – in Hungary, Slovenia and, crucially for Macron, in France.
His political advisers see a potential electoral dividend from the visit, although Macron has yet to announce whether he will run.
“For the president, it’s an opportunity to show his leadership in Europe. That he is above the fray,” one French government source told Reuters.
As Macron and Putin meet in Moscow, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet Biden in Washington, DC.
The chancellor has said that Moscow would pay a “high price” in the event of an attack on Ukraine but has rejected the possibility of sending lethal weapons to Kyiv.
Scholz will travel to Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15.