Diplomatic push by Macron and Scholz comes as US accuses Kremlin of plotting a ‘false flag attack’ to justify military action.
The French president and the German chancellor will head to Moscow and Kyiv in the coming weeks, adding to diplomatic efforts to try to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an invasion of Ukraine and find a way out of the growing tensions.
France’s Emmanuel Macron is scheduled to visit Moscow on Monday and Kyiv on Tuesday, while Germany’s Olaf Scholz will travel to Kyiv on February 14 and Moscow on February 15.
The high-level visits come as China has backed Russia’s demand that NATO be precluded from expanding to Ukraine, and after the United States accused the Kremlin on Thursday of an elaborate plot to fabricate an attack by Ukrainian forces that Russia could use as a pretext to take military action.
The US has not provided detailed information backing up the claims, which Moscow has vehemently denied.
While France is a major player in NATO and is moving troops to Romania as part of the alliance’s preparation for possible Russian action, Macron has also been actively pushing for dialogue with Putin and has spoken to him several times in recent weeks. The two will hold a one-on-one meeting Monday, Macron’s office said Friday.
Macron is following a French tradition of striking a separate path from the US in geopolitics, as well as trying to make his own mark on this crisis and defend Europe’s interests.
Germany has emphasised the importance of various diplomatic formats in tackling the tensions and has refused to send weapons to Ukraine, irking some allies. Scholz also has faced criticism at home lately for keeping a low public profile in the crisis.
After weeks of diverse efforts at dialogue that have led to no significant concessions by Russia and the US, it is unclear how much effect the trips will have.
But Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday that “top-level visits seriously reduce challenges in the sphere of security and upset the Kremlin’s plans”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with Kuleba on Friday to discuss the Russian military buildup and steps “to encourage Russia to pursue diplomacy over war and ensure security and stability”.
Blinken reaffirmed the US and its allies’ willingness to “impose swift and severe consequences on Russia if it chooses to escalate,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said.
‘Readiness for more talks’
In a call Wednesday with US President Joe Biden, Macron filled him in on his diplomatic efforts. In talks with the Russian and Ukrainian leaders on Thursday night, Macron’s office said they discussed ways to “identify elements that could lead to de-escalation,” and “conditions for strategic balance in Europe, which should allow for the reduction of risks on the ground and guarantee security on the continent”.
Scholz has a previously planned meeting with Biden in Washington, DC, on Monday.
Moscow has been signalling an apparent readiness for more talks with Washington and NATO in recent days. Some experts say that as long as Russia and the West keep talking, there is a reason for cautious optimism.
Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, raising concern that Moscow might invade again, as it did in 2014.
The troop presence and uncertainty have unnerved Ukrainians and hurt the country’s economy.
The Kremlin has denied that an invasion is planned and has demanded guarantees from the West that Ukraine will never join NATO, deployment of the bloc’s weapons near Russian borders will be halted, and the alliance’s forces will be rolled back from Eastern Europe.