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Signs of easing tensions emerge in Ukraine conflict

France and Germany are calling for new talks to deescalate tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine, but the crisis remains very volatile as the Kremlin ordered a display of military might across its vast territories and 8,500 American troops were put on high alert.

(CN) — Even as 8,500 American soldiers were put on high alert and Russia flexed its muscles with military drills across its 11 time zones, signs began to emerge on Tuesday that tensions between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine may be easing just a bit.

On Tuesday, Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said the threat of a Russian invasion of his country was being exaggerated by news media hungry for “clicks,” instead suggesting Moscow was seeking to destabilize Kyiv through other means, such as “hybrid attacks,” according to reports.

Over in Western Europe, meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the European Union's most powerful politicians, said on Tuesday that they want to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on de-escalating tensions.

Macron said he planned to speak with Putin on Friday to find a route for diplomacy over the crisis. In the past, Macron has spoken about the need to work with Russia for the sake of European security and Germany has long had a policy of rapprochement towards Russia, a concept known as “Ostpolitik.”

In Putin's inner circles, too, the appetite for further escalation may be waning even as the Kremlin ordered wide-scale military drills in various parts of Russia and beyond, some in conjunction with China.

The West's ostracism of Russia following its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has forced Putin into a growing alliance with China, prompting many analysts to see a new Cold War emerging. In recent years, Russia and China, which were long seen as rivals, have stepped up military cooperation, sought to create a new financial framework to rival the Western model and built major oil and gas pipelines between the two countries. On Tuesday, Russia and China announced plans to soon sign an agreement to build a lunar space station together, Russia's Tass news agency said.

Putin's warming ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping will be on full display in coming days as he attends the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which start on Feb. 4. The U.S. and its close allies are boycotting the games diplomatically, citing Beijing's human rights abuses in Hong Kong and aggression toward Taiwan, whose independence China rejects.

But the Kremlin's calculations in Ukraine may be shifting too as NATO sends in arms shipments to Kyiv and vows to punish Russia severely if it sends troops across Ukraine's borders. The tensions over Ukraine also are hitting Russia's stock market, the MOEX Russia Index, hard and the ruble's value has tumbled, forcing Russia's Central Bank to step in and halt its slide, as reported by the Moscow Times newspaper.

Since making numerous statements in December about the crisis in Ukraine, Putin has been quiet in recent weeks, leaving political analysts guessing what his intentions might be. He has left the negotiations to the Russian Foreign Ministry led by Sergey Lavrov, a veteran diplomat who met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Friday for high-stakes talks.

Russia is demanding a retreat of NATO from what it sees as its “sphere of influence,” an area that includes the NATO-aspiring former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

Since November, tensions over Ukraine have been rising to dangerous levels after Russia was accused by the U.S. of planning to invade Ukraine.

Western intelligence services pointed to large-scale troop and military equipment movements close to Ukraine's borders as evidence the Kremlin might attack. Claiming an invasion was “imminent,” the U.S. has spent weeks rallying support among NATO allies to the defense of Ukraine in the form of arms shipments and threats to severely punish Russia by booting its banks from the U.S.-dominated international financial transaction system, known as SWIFT.

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French President Emmanuel Macron, left, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a media conference ahead of their meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Russia has said it is not planning such an incursion, but it has pointed to increased military aggression by Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as a motive for building up forces close to Ukraine.

Ukraine's army has purchased military drones from Turkey, a NATO member, and used them in the conflict and this escalation may have prompted the Kremlin to react so fiercely. The 2020 war over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh saw Azerbaijan use drones effectively against Armenian forces and claim territorial gains. There is speculation that the Kremlin was concerned of a similar outcome in Donbas, the eastern regions of Ukraine where many Russians live. The conflict has been simmering since 2014. About 14,000 people have been killed and about 1 million Ukrainians have fled their homes.

Despite signs of de-escalation, the crisis remains dangerously combustible. On Monday, the Pentagon announced it had put 8,500 troops on high alert and was prepared to deploy them into NATO countries in Eastern Europe. The United Kingdom is sending its own arms shipments and experts to Ukraine.

Russia, meanwhile, conducted large-scale military drills across its vast territories. The drills involved troops, tanks, drones and took place near Ukraine, in Belarus, close to Moscow, in North Caucasus, in the Baltic Sea and in the Far East. The Russian Defense Ministry also released video showing three navy ships participating in joint drills with the Chinese fleet in the Arabian Sea.

Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, said in a briefing note that Russia will likely keep up its pressure on Ukraine for many more months, but that Putin has likely determined that “the cost-benefit ratio of a large-scale military offensive, including the occupation of new territory, is unfavorable.”

“Russia would risk getting dragged into a large-scale protracted war that would trigger severe Western sanctions and boost NATO presence along Russia's borders,” said Andrius Tursa, a Teneo expert on Central and Eastern Europe. “Also, it would be difficult to maintain the newly occupied territories, while anti-Russian sentiment would likely soar across Central and Eastern Europe.”

Instead, Tursa said Russia likely will ramp up “military and psychological pressure on Ukraine and its Western allies in an attempt to force concessions.”

“This scenario is already materializing, with the persisting build-up of armed forces, the announcement of large-scale military drills with Belarus scheduled for 10-20 February, and the deployment of nuclear-capable missile systems within the hitting range of Kyiv and other European capitals,” Tursa said. “Ukraine's government websites have experienced a large-scale attack, which could be a precursor for more attacks targeting, for example, electricity or communications networks.”

He said the Kremlin has a lot of hybrid weapons at its disposal: instigating violent anti-government protests, attacking Kyiv's political leadership and even coup attempts.

“Even a limited military operation – based on a false flag operation or some other pretext – aimed at showcasing Russia's military superiority and obliterating Ukraine's defensive capabilities cannot be ruled out in this scenario,” he said. “Destabilizing activities that fall short of an outright military invasion and the long-term occupation of new territory would mitigate the risk of severe sanctions and could widen divisions within the Western alliance.”

The tensions, then, seem poised to remain toxic for a long time as Europe finds itself struggling to figure out where it is going as a new Cold War seems to descend over a worried continent.

The Berlin Wall symbolized the old Cold War and new walls are now going up.

On Tuesday, Poland announced it had begun construction on a 5.5-meter-high (18 feet) and 115-mile wall at a cost of about $407 million along its border with Belarus to stop the movement of asylum seekers Warsaw accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and his close ally Putin of using as human weapons by sending them across Poland's border in the woods of Bialowieza Forest, the same forest where the heads of the former Soviet republics of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine met at a hunting resort on Dec. 8, 1991, and signed an agreement to effectively dissolve the Soviet Union.

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

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