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Hopes for de-escalation over Ukraine grow as Macron, Putin talk

Diplomacy gets a chance to take root over the crisis in Ukraine as French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk and agree de-escalation is needed.

(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone on Friday and capped a week that saw diplomacy pick up over the crisis in Ukraine.

In their call, Putin and Macron talked about the need for de-escalation in Ukraine, according to France 24, citing an aide to the French president.

Tensions between Russia and NATO over the future direction of Ukraine have been mounting for weeks and have become what many see as a critical moment for peace in Europe.

Russia is accused of amassing about 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders in preparation for an invasion while Moscow claims Ukraine is planning a major offensive against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Putin has warned of a “military-technical” response unless the United States and its NATO allies recognize that Russia's security is threatened by the continued push of the Western military alliance to incorporate Ukraine into its pact.

To deter a Russia incursion, the United Kingdom and the U.S. have been sending large amounts of ammunition, anti-tank missile launchers, military advisers and other “lethal aid” to Ukraine to bulk up its army. Russia also accuses American private military firms of operating in Ukraine as mercenaries. Ukraine is encouraging foreign fighters to help it. The U.S. and NATO have said they would not send troops to Ukraine in the event of an invasion.

“There is, perhaps, one certainty to hold on to: Mr. Putin will never start a war he’s likely to lose,” wrote Yulia Latynina, a writer and journalist for Echo of Moscow and Novaya Gazeta, in an opinion for the New York Times in support of the tactic to build up Ukraine's army. “So the only way to ensure peace is to guarantee that in a military confrontation, Mr. Putin would never win.”

The U.S. and its allies also have tried to deter Putin by vowing to punish Russia severely by way of economic sanctions, kicking it out of the U.S.-dominated international banking system and closing off a controversial pipeline Russia has built through the Baltic Sea to funnel natural gas to Germany and the rest of Europe. That gas line, Nord Stream 2, is a source of major conflict because its critics contend that once it comes online Russia will stop paying for its gas to flow through Ukraine and deprive Kyiv of billions of dollars in revenues and gain more leverage over its neighbor.

Since this crisis started in November, the Kremlin has denied it plans to invade and some experts believe Putin may have ordered the troop buildup as a bluff and to get the West to take Russia's security concerns seriously.

Ukrainian soldiers take part in an exercise for the use of anti-tank missiles at the Yavoriv military training ground in western Ukraine on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Pavlo Palamarchuk)

On Friday, Putin assured Macron that he has “no offensive plans.” The telephone call “enabled us to agree on the need for a de-escalation,” France 24 reported, citing an aide at the Elysee Palace who briefed reporters.

In a statement, the Kremlin said Putin “agreed to stay in close communication” with Macron.

A combination of events seems to have led to the crisis, including the steady military arming of Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO, a refusal by Kyiv to consider granting more autonomy to two pro-Russian regions where a simmering conflict is in its ninth year and the arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden in the White House and his team of diplomats eager to recruit Ukraine into the Western alliance.

Many pro-Russia political analysts accuse the Obama administration of helping orchestrate a coup in Kyiv in 2014 that led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally. The so-called Maidan Revolution sparked so much alarm in Moscow that Putin ordered Russian troops to annex the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. Crimea is home a pivotal naval base for Russia on the Black Sea. The annexation led to heavy economic sanctions by the West and opened a rift between Moscow and the West that's only gotten wider and pushed the Kremlin toward China.

Also in 2014, Russia-backed militants in eastern Ukraine declared two regions there independent, sparking a civil war that has killed about 14,000 people and forced up to 1 million people to flee their homes.

A 2014 ceasefire deal, known as the Minsk agreements, has failed to end the conflict with both sides accused of not living up to a protocol that includes withdrawing troops, granting amnesties and allowing the rebellious regions, where many ethnic Russian live, a chance to obtain more autonomy from Kyiv.

The Minsk agreements are seen as largely favorable to Russia and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for them to be rewritten.

Momentum is growing for talks to resume on resolving the crisis in eastern Ukraine. On Wednesday, Ukrainian and Russian diplomats sat down in Paris and agreed to a new ceasefire, a step to restarting the so-called Normandy Format talks overseen by France and Germany. The U.S. is not a party to these talks.

Signs of diplomatic progress also came from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday when he spoke to Russian media outlets.

Lavrov said the door to further talks was opened by a written response the U.S. provided on Wednesday to the Kremlin's demands in December for NATO to never accept Ukraine as a member and to pull back from Russia's sphere of influence.

The U.S. and NATO rejected the Kremlin's demands related to Ukraine's potential membership in NATO and removal of NATO troops in Eastern Europe as nonstarters. But in its response, the U.S. offered to engage Russia on discussions about limiting the deployment of missiles in Europe and putting restrictions on military exercises.

“But there is a kernel of rationality, on, as I said, secondary issues,” Lavrov said, referring to the restrictions on missile deployments and military exercises. He said Russia was willing to discuss those issues.

Kyiv, too, was dialing down the tone. On Friday, Zelenskyy said talk of an imminent Russian invasion was making the crisis worse. Ukrainian military officials have in recent days contradicted American officials and said there is no evidence Russia plans to attack.

“We don't need this panic,” Zelenskyy said at a news conference with foreign media. He said such talk is making Ukraine's battered economy even worse.

“Because of all these signals that tomorrow there will be war, there are signals even from respected leaders of states, they just say that tomorrow there will be war,” he said. “This is panic – how much does it cost for our state?”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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