French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday there is an opportunity for further negotiations to de-escalate the crisis on the Ukraine-Russian border, after talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in Kyiv.
“Our desire for the following weeks and months is for the situation to stabilize and for us to be able to re-engage through new mechanisms of guarantees, a sustainable de-escalation,” Macron said Tuesday.
“In this context, the calm that you demonstrate, the reflection from all participating parties, both in words and in actions, are indispensable,” Macron told Zelenskiy at a press conference following the talks.
Meanwhile, the Russian military build-up around Ukraine continues unabated. Six Russian warships headed to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean Tuesday. Moscow has deployed over 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and a further 20,000 in neighboring Belarus, where they are taking part in joint military exercises. The West fears an invasion could be imminent but Moscow denies it has any such plans.
The French president said he had received assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow on Monday.
“On the discussions on military and security aspects, as I have said very clearly yesterday, we have had exchanges with President Putin, and he told me that he would not be behind any escalation. I think that is important,” Macron said.
However, a Kremlin spokesperson disputed that President Putin had given any guarantees over halting military exercises close to the Ukrainian border.
President Macron said the key to ending the crisis is the implementation of the Minsk Protocol, a roadmap sponsored by France and Germany through the so-called Normandy Format talks aimed at ending the conflict between Russian-backed rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine.
“The Minsk agreements are also the best protection of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Based on the commitment of the two sides, Russian and Ukrainian, we now have the possibility of advancing negotiations… This shared determination is the only path that will allow us to build peace, the only path that will allow us to build a viable political solution,” Macron said.
Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy agreed there was an opportunity, but said that Russian President Putin must prove his commitment.
“Generally, I don’t quite trust words. That’s why I think that every politician can show his or her openness by concrete deeds,” Zelenskiy said.
“The first steps are what Emmanuel [Macron] mentioned,” Zelenskiy added. “We have a platform, the Normandy Format. We react very positively to the meeting of the political advisers in the coming days. I believe that after this meeting, there can be an opportunity — if there is openness — for a meeting of the leaders. And there, one can demonstrate one’s subjectivity, and one’s openness.”
The Minsk agreements would see the eastern Donbas region, much of which is currently under the control of pro-Russian rebels, reintegrated into Ukraine, but with political autonomy.
Ukraine remains deeply skeptical of the deal, says Alexander Titov, a Russia analyst at Queens University Belfast. “Moscow sees Minsk [agreements] as a way of re-establishing some form of presence in Ukraine for its pro-Russian forces and stopping Ukraine from formal NATO membership. Ukraine, for exactly the same reasons, opposes it,” Titov told VOA.
There are concerns in Ukraine over what President Macron may have offered Russia, according to Quentin Peel of the London-based policy group Chatham House.
“Ukrainians are very suspicious that behind it all Russia simply wants to give the separatists in the Donbas a veto over any future constitutional arrangement in Ukraine. So the Ukrainians are suspicious that Macron might try and force them to give that away. But having said that, I think it’s probably the only diplomatic way forward that is visible,” Peel told VOA.
That explains why Ukraine is trying to calm the situation, says Titov. “There is a lot of talk in Kyiv and Ukraine more generally about the whole crisis being kind of exaggerated in order to force Ukraine to actually implement the Minsk agreements as a way of kind of calming down Putin.”
Despite those suspicions, Macron has kept diplomatic channels open. “I think what Emmanuel Macron has spotted is the need to play up to Putin’s sense of pride. By coming to Moscow and sitting with Putin and giving Putin, if you like, almost the lead in the negotiations — that’s exactly what the Russian president really craves for,” Peel told VOA.
Whether that will be enough to avert conflict remains to be seen. European diplomatic efforts continue next week, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to visit Moscow for talks with President Putin.