French President Emmanuel Macron has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin told him in their marathon talks a day earlier that Moscow would not further escalate the Ukraine crisis.
Macron’s remarks on a visit to Kyiv on Tuesday came as the Kremlin denied that he and Putin struck a deal on de-escalating the crisis. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “in the current situation, Moscow and Paris can’t be reaching any deals”.
Macron met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy amid mounting fears of a Russian invasion. Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops and military hardware near the border with Ukraine, but insists it has no plans to attack its neighbour.
The Kremlin wants guarantees from Western powers that NATO will not accept Ukraine and other former Soviet nations as members, and that the organisation will halt weapon deployments and roll back its forces from eastern Europe — demands the US and NATO reject as nonstarters.
Macron said he believed steps can be taken to de-escalate the crisis and called on all sides to stay calm. Both Putin and Zelenskyy had told him they were committed to the principles of a 2014 peace agreement, he said, adding that this deal, known as the Minsk accords, offered a path to resolving their continuing disputes.
Kyiv seeks ‘concrete steps’
“This shared determination is the only way allowing us to create peace, the only way to create a viable political solution,” Macron told a joint news conference with Zelenskyy.
“Calm … is essential from all parties in words and in deeds,” Macron said, praising Zelenskyy for “the sangfroid that you are showing, and which the Ukrainian people are showing, in the face of military pressure on your borders and on your country”.
“We cannot resolve this crisis in a few hours of talks,” he said. “It will be the days and the weeks and the months to come that will allow us to progress.”
Zelenskyy, for his part, made clear he was sceptical of any assurances Macron may have received from Putin.
“I do not really trust words, I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps,” the Ukrainian leader said.
Zelenskyy said he hoped a meeting of high-ranking officials on Thursday in Berlin would pave the way for a summit with the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – the so-called Normandy format – aimed at reviving the stalled peace plan for Kyiv’s conflict with Moscow-backed separatists.
The Normandy format talks between Russia and Ukraine were brokered by France and Germany in 2015 and helped end large-scale hostilities in eastern Ukraine but the conflict has continued to simmer ever since.
Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from Kyiv, said Macron is “clearly pushing forward with the Normandy Format” in relation to the continuing tensions.
“This is a format whereby France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia sit at the same table to try to find some sort of political compromise,” Abdel-Hamid said. “It is one of the few formats where Ukraine and Russia sit face-to-face and can have some sort of direct talk.”
Later on Tuesday, Macron arrived in Berlin for talks with the leaders of Germany and Poland with the leaders of the three countries expressing their joint support for Ukrainian sovereignty, and the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement.
NATO chief issues warning
As Macron sought a diplomatic solution with Kyiv, United States President Joe Biden ramped up the pressure on Moscow on Monday by warning he would “end” the controversial new Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe if tanks rolled into Ukraine.
Biden’s declaration at a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the bluntest so far on the fate of the massive pipeline, which is complete but has yet to begin delivering natural gas.
Meanwhile, the US and the European Union have threatened Russia with sanctions if it attacks Ukraine. Moscow, still Europe’s biggest energy supplier despite already being under sanctions since seizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, has largely dismissed new sanctions as an empty threat.
While Western countries have stood together to back Ukraine, they disagree about the likelihood of war. French officials have suggested they think Washington has overstated the threat, and Kyiv itself has also played down the likelihood of a large-scale invasion.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, asked in an interview with CNN how likely it was that Russia would invade, said, “There’s no certainty but what we see is a continued military buildup with more and more forces … The warning time is going down and the risk of an attack is going up.”