French president Emmanuel Macron believes he can deliver “a historic solution” to the Ukraine crisis ahead of his arrival in Moscow for talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
After a flurry of diplomatic activity that included talks with US president Joe Biden this weekend and three phone calls with Putin, Macron will land in Moscow on Monday seeking a “de-escalation” of the tense standoff on Ukraine’s eastern borders.
Russia has denied planning to invade Ukraine but has tens of thousands of troops near its neighbour’s borders, prompting the US to order about 3,000 extra troops to bolster Nato’s eastern flank in Poland and Romania.
The White House believes Moscow has assembled at least 70% of the firepower it needs to give Vladimir Putin the option of a major military operation by mid-February. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Sunday that an invasion could take place “as soon as tomorrow”.
It was therefore “urgent to advance towards a new order which our Europe needs profoundly and which rests on the cardinal principle of sovereign equality among states”, he told the paper.
He said his dialogue with Putin would probably be enough to prevent military conflict breaking out despite the pessimistic assessments in many western capitals.
“The intensity of the dialogue we have had with Russia and this visit to Moscow are designed to stop that happening,” Macron said.
“Then we will discuss the terms of de-escalation. We have to be very realistic. We will not obtain unilateral gestures, but it’s essential to stop the situation deteriorating.”
Macron, whose diplomacy has been strengthened by France being the current holder of the European presidency, said he had “always been in a deep dialogue with president Putin and our responsibility is to build a historic solution” to the problem of European security. “I believe President Putin is available for this,” Macron said.
The French leader, who faces a presidential election challenge from far-right candidates in April, will travel to Kyiv on Tuesday for talks with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
While Macron is in Moscow, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will be in Washington for talks with Joe Biden on Monday, aiming to narrow differences between the US and German approach to the crisis. Berlin has been criticised by some Nato allies for not supplying Ukraine with weapons.
“There are strict export criteria we are following on the export of weapons into crisis regions,” Scholz told the Washington Post on the eve of his White House visit, and pointed to other ways in which Germany was helping Ukraine, including $2 bn in economic aid over seven years.
He also noted that his government was contributing to a Nato effort to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank, with hundreds of troops deployed in Lithuania, fighter jets in Romania and plans to send more warplanes to the Baltic.
There are still differences however between Washington and Berlin over the response if Russia attacks Ukraine. The US has said the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany would not open. Scholz’s government has not been as categorical and the chancellor said the situation required “strategic ambiguity”.
“Please understand that I will not get into any specifics, but our answer will be united and decisive,” he said.”
Amid a weeks-long military buildup, Moscow has said it could take unspecified military action if its security demands are not met. Those include a promise that Nato will never admit Ukraine, a demand the United States and Nato have called unacceptable. Western governments have promised to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and Boris Johnson has warned Russia it would be a “tragic miscalculation” to invade its neighbour.
US officials have warned that a full attack could lead to the swift capture of Kyiv and potentially result in 50,000 civilians killed or wounded, as well as up to 25,000 dead Ukrainian soldiers and 10,000 Russian ones. Millions could flee in a refugee crisis for Europe, they suggested.
They said the Russian army had now positioned 83 “battalion tactical groups” near Ukraine, each with between 750 and 1,000 soldiers. The figure has risen from 60 battalion groups two weeks ago, they added.
Ukraine’s former defence minister, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, said he did not believe a Russian invasion was inevitable. He said the remorseless Russian troop buildup was proceeding along textbook lines, but that the Kremlin’s intentions and strategy remained opaque.
“We don’t see a political endgame here,” he said. “If Putin seizes Kyiv, there will be full-scale war. The Ukrainian army forces will fight. There will be enormous resistance for all time. Why would you do that?
“Ukraine is not going to say: ‘Let’s join Russia.’ This is understood. Unless, of course, Putin is totally delusional and has his own understanding of reality. There will be blood, sanctions. Nobody needs that kind of international war in Europe right now.”
However, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, sought on Sunday to play down “apocalyptic predictions” about an imminent Russian invasion, saying his country was strong and had unprecedented international support.
Earlier on Sunday, Macron spoke Biden for 40 minutes to “share information about contacts made during the weekend” and for “good coordination” ahead of the Frenchman’s mission to Moscow.
The White House said the two leaders discussed “ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts in response to Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders”.