(CN) — Talks to avert a major war in Europe are intensifying as French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Moscow on Monday for delicate talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and, to the annoyance of Washington, called on the West to take Russia's concerns about NATO expansion into consideration.
Macron's trip to Moscow marked the start of another week of high-stakes diplomacy amidst a dangerous military showdown between the United States and its NATO allies and Russia over Ukraine and the broader balance of powers in Europe.
“Let us begin to build a useful response for Russia, useful for all of Europe, a response that will make it possible to avoid war, to build elements of trust, stability and visibility,” Macron said in a statement on Twitter. “Let's do it together.”
Prior to his trip to Moscow, Macron talked with French media about the need to rekindle peace talks over Ukraine's Donbas war and to look at making Ukraine a neutral nation in the way Finland was during the Cold War.
On Tuesday, Macron was scheduled to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Meanwhile, Germany's new Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Washington on Monday to meet U.S. President Joe Biden. Scholz is under pressure from Biden to show more resolve in standing up to Putin. Germany has refused to send arms to Ukraine and Scholz's Social Democratic party traditionally has sought cooperation with Russia, in no small measure because Germany relies on Russian gas and the two nations share historic ties.
This crisis was sparked in late autumn when Russia began building up troops near Ukraine's borders, possibly due to an escalation in fighting in Donbas. It has now massed about 130,000 troops on Ukraine's borders and the U.S. accuses it of planning to invade.
The Kremlin denies it has any intention to invade, but it has used the crisis to demand the U.S. scrap plans to incorporate Ukraine into the NATO military alliance and withdraw NATO troops and weaponry from Russia's proximity. The U.S. has called these demands non-starters.
In response to Russia's troop buildup, the U.S. and its NATO allies are sending additional soldiers to Lithuania, Romania and Poland and speeding up arms shipments to Kyiv. On the other side, Russia and pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine charge NATO-backed Ukrainian troops are planning to retake Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and rebel-held Donbas.
Fears of a major conflict breaking out in Ukraine – where war has simmered in its eastern regions for eight years and left about 14,000 people killed and up to 2 million displaced – are shaking world politics and cementing a view that the West, led by the U.S., has entered into a new Cold War with Russia and China.
On Friday, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics and issued a lengthy statement about their shared worldview and common interests. China supported Russia's concerns over NATO expansion and Putin said he backed China's territorial claims to Taiwan.
When Putin came into power in 1999, he expressed pro-Western views and even talked about joining NATO, but relations between the West and the Kremlin have only worsened ever since NATO continued to march eastward and in 2008 put Ukraine and Georgia on the path towards membership in a military alliance that was created to contain and combat the old Soviet Union.
Macron's willingness to sit down with Putin in the Kremlin and his offers for compromise reflect a wider ambivalence in both France and in much of Europe about the wisdom and need to view Russia as an enemy, a position that is in contrast to Washington's portrayal of Putin as a dangerous dictator hellbent on destroying democracies and reconstituting the tsarist empire.
Sitting far away from each other at a long oval table in accordance with coronavirus rules, Putin and Macron were shown on Russian television greeting each other warmly and entering into frank talks.
“This dialogue is absolutely essential, more than ever, to ensure the security and stability of the European continent,” Macron said in opening remarks.
Macron said he hoped his visit to Moscow could begin cooling tensions, but he expected no quick solutions. The French president tried to walk a fine balance by both showing his commitment to NATO and offering to respect Russia's concerns.
There may be domestic considerations too in Macron's calculations. He faces reelection in April and his chief opponents are right- and far-right-wing candidates who offer dramatically different views on Russia than the vehemently anti-Russian expressions issued by American politicians and Europeans in Central and Eastern Europe who harbor historic animosities toward Moscow and its communist past.
On Monday, Eric Zemmour, a controversial but popular far-right television personality and writer seeking to win the French presidency, said Macron was “right to go” but he criticized the president for not going even earlier in the crisis.
“It's a bit late,” Zemmour said. “Putin hasn't confidence in him.”
Zemmour said the crisis can be solved easily. “We must commit ourselves that Ukraine never enters NATO,” he said. “Vladimir Putin's demand is completely legitimate.”
Valerie Pecresse, the candidate for the mainstream center-right Les Republicains party, proposed on France 5 holding a conference on security in Europe to “give birth to a pan-European security council from the Atlantic to the Urals.”
She said France must “take the lead” and do “without the United States.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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