Emmanuel Macron completed a whirlwind diplomatic mission to Moscow and Kyiv on Tuesday, claiming that he had received personal assurances from Vladimir Putin that Russia would not worsen the crisis over Ukraine.
Speaking after talks with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Kyiv, Macron said Putin had made clear during discussions on Monday that he would not be the one to escalate tensions. The standoff could take months to resolve, Macron added.
Zelenskiy, however, said he was sceptical about his Russian counterpart’s apparent commitment to peace. “I do not really trust words. I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps,” Zelenskiy said at a joint press conference with Macron. “Openness was great” so long as it was “not a game”, Zelenskiy added.
On Tuesday, six Russian warships and a submarine passed through the Dardanelles strait, heading towards the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. The Russian vessels, landing ships used for amphibious assault, began arriving in the Black Sea on Wednesday.
Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, said the arrival of the ships, adding to Russia’s already substantial firepower, showed that “the visit of president Macron was important, but it has not produced a miracle.”
Macron flew from Ukraine to Berlin for a meeting with German and Polish leaders. The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said: “Our appraisal of the situation is united, as is our position on this. Any further attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is unacceptable and will draw wide-reaching consequences for Russia – politically, economically and geo-strategically.”
After a meeting in Washington with Joe Biden on Monday, Scholz refused to say definitively whether the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany would be shut down in the event of an invasion. However, the US Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, said that the chancellor had given that assurance privately at a dinner on Monday night.
“The good news is, he confirmed what President Biden said yesterday: that if the invasion occurs, Nord Stream 2 will not go forward,” McConnell said. “The bad news is that would be after an invasion.”
Macron insisted on Tuesday that the Minsk agreements signed by Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 at a time of military defeat were the best way out of the conflict. But Kyiv and Moscow do not agree on what the deal means.
The Kremlin says Zelenskiy’s government needs to recognise pro-Moscow separatists in the eastern territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kyiv insists the separatists need to disarm before any political solution can be found, and officials believe implementing the accords could lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian state.
Asked about Ukraine’s reluctance to implement the Minsk accords, Putin had responded on Monday night with a sinister-seeming phrase: “Like it or not, you’ll have to tolerate it, my beauty.”
Switching to Russian and addressing Putin directly on Tuesday, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was indeed “tolerant” because it was not replying to Kremlin provocations. “There’s wisdom in this tolerance,” he said.
It was not clear whether two days of intense French diplomacy had brought about modest concessions by Moscow, as Macron intimated, or nothing of the kind. French officials said Putin had pledged not to carry out any new “military initiatives”, after six hours of frank talks with Macron.
But the Kremlin quickly moved to ridicule any suggestion that it had made concessions.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, denied that Putin had agreed with Macron to de-escalate. “This is wrong in its essence. Moscow and Paris couldn’t do any deals. It’s simply impossible,” Peskov said, insinuating that it would be pointless to make a deal with France.
Peskov added: “France is a leading country in the EU, France is a member of Nato, but Paris is not the leader there. In this bloc, a very different country is in charge. So what deals can we talk about?”
In Kyiv, Macron clarified reports that he had suggested that “Finlandising” Ukraine might resolve the crisis. The term Findlandisation refers to Helsinki’s non-aligned status during the cold war.
Asked at the press conference in Kyiv about “Finlandisation”, Macron said he had “never used this formula”, and declined to repeat the word. The Normandy format – featuring French, German, Russian and Ukrainian officials – was the best way of making progress, he said.
The Biden administration has rejected Putin’s demand that Nato rule out membership for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said his government was not prepared to ditch its long-held red lines. These included Ukraine’s right to make its own security choices, including over Nato, and its refusal to hold negotiations with Moscow-backed separatists. “No one will be able to force us to cross them,” he said on Tuesday.
The French officials said that during the talks Macron had agreed to “open dialogue on strategic questions”, but there were no details on what that dialogue might involve.
Macron is the most senior western leader to meet Putin since Moscow began massing troops last autumn near Ukraine. The Kremlin has deployed and estimated 140,000 soldiers along Ukraine’s borders and will begin major military exercises on Thursday in Belarus, within striking distance of Kyiv. These are due to finish on 20 February.
Even if the Kremlin does then withdraw tactical battalions from Belarus, it is unclear if they would return to their bases in the far east of Russia or remain closer to Ukraine.
Western states have been saying for the past several weeks that they fear Russia is preparing to invade. Putin denies this but has previously said he could take “military-technical measures” if his security demands are not met. He wants Nato to return to its 1997 levels of deployment and to pull out of central and eastern Europe.
Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said Kyiv would carry out its own parallel exercises at the same time as Russia and Belarus. These would take place across the country, including in the Chernihiv region, close to the Belarus border. Reznikov estimated Russia had deployed 140,000 soldiers and 72 battalion tactical groups, 11 of them in Belarus.
Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine forum at the Chatham House thinktank, said Putin was notching up a series of “tactical wins” over the White House and its western allies. “His strategy is to plant these seeds of discord,” she said, adding that he may yet string this crisis out for months.
She said: “Putin offers the miracle of a possible solution. It’s very alluring for each western leader to say: ‘I found it! I’m the saviour of Europe.’ He plays on people’s egos. This is especially true with Macron.”
Speaking alongside Macron in the Kremlin on Monday, Putin claimed that if Ukraine joined Nato, it would inevitably lead to conflict between the alliance and Russia, given Ukraine’s claims on Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“Ask your readers, viewers, internet users: do you want France to fight with Russia? But that’s the way it will be,” said Putin, angrily lecturing a French journalist.