MOSCOW — French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Kyiv on Tuesday to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, pushing a plan to de-escalate the “extreme tension” between Russia and NATO over potential Ukrainian membership in the alliance in his effort to pave the way for talks on a new security deal for Europe and Russia.
Zelensky tweeted a welcome message to Macron, saying it was the first time a French president had visited his country in 24 years.
“I’m convinced it will be fruitful for our states,” he said, adding that Ukraine and France are “interested in deepening cooperation in the security sphere and strengthening economic cooperation.”
Macron’s five hours of talks Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin did not defuse the crisis, but French officials told journalists there was hope for a structured dialogue with Russia on collective security, and they portrayed Putin as willing to discuss de-escalation.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that de-escalation of the crisis was “urgently needed, because tension is growing day by day.” But he complained that the United States and NATO continue to brush off Russia’s security demands.
“On the fundamental points, unfortunately, we did not receive a response. Therefore, this topic remains open in the full sense of the word and remains the most important for us,” Peskov told reporters Tuesday.
“But so far, of course, we can’t say that any real solutions are being probed. We do not feel or see the willingness of our Western partners to take our concerns into account.”
He denied a British press report that Macron and Putin had reached an agreement on Ukraine and accused the West of ramping up tensions by sending planeloads of arms and ammunition to Ukraine.
Putin, for the first time Monday, said some of Macron’s proposals might offer a joint path to de-escalation.
“I think it’s entirely likely that some of his ideas and suggestions, even if it’s probably too early to talk about them, could become part of the basis for our next joint steps,” he said.
Macron said his talks with Putin had focused on their “willingness to work together on the security guarantees that will allow us to build a new order of security and stability in Europe.”
“There’s no security for the Europeans if there is no security for Russia,” Macron declared.
Europe, he said, faces an “extremely serious moment” in its history.
Putin said that Russia “would do everything possible to find compromises acceptable to everyone,” but he called on the United States and NATO to accept Russia’s demands.
Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops and equipment near Ukraine’s border, positioning them for what U.S. officials warn could be the largest military land offensive in Europe since World War II.
Moscow has demanded sweeping security guarantees that would rewrite Europe’s post-Cold War security architecture, giving Russia a veto on NATO expansion and rolling back NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states.
Putin on Monday repeated his demand for an end to NATO’s eastern expansion, calling it a key threat to Russian security. “It’s not us moving toward NATO,” he said, after meeting Macron. “It’s NATO moving toward us.” He said there would be “no winners” if war broke out between NATO and Russia.
NATO and the United States have offered Moscow compromises on arms control, but Putin said these were of secondary importance to Moscow.
Peskov said Russian forces massed in Belarus for a major joint military exercise beginning Thursday would leave that country later this month at the end of the event, echoing comments last month from Belarusian military commanders.
U.S. officials are concerned that the exercise could be used as part of a multipronged invasion of Ukraine. The maneuvers involve Russian troops and equipment that have traveled more than 6,000 miles to Belarus and the deployment of advanced missile systems, fighter planes and bombers.
Macron, who has long pushed for a European foreign policy that is more independent of Washington, has spoken regularly by phone with Putin in recent weeks. In a joint news conference following Monday’s Kremlin meeting, Macron called the coming days “decisive.”
“We are in a situation of extreme tension, a degree of incandescence that Europe has rarely known in the past decades,” he said.
In Washington, President Biden upped the ante following talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, declaring that the Nord Stream 2 project designed to send gas from Russia to Germany would be abandoned if Moscow again sends forces into Ukraine.
Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv on Feb. 14 and to Moscow a day later.
Biden hosted Scholz at the White House as Western allies attempt to present a unified front in the crisis. Scholz has faced criticism at home and abroad that he hasn’t been doing enough to address the crisis, supplying Kyiv with helmets as other NATO allies send troops and military equipment. The German leader said Monday that his country was “absolutely united” with the United States and other NATO allies and that “we will not be taking different steps.”
Putin again called on Zelensky on Monday to implement the 2015 Minsk agreement that provided for a measure of autonomy in Ukraine’s east and an amnesty for Russian-backed insurgents there. The accord, viewed as generally favorable to Moscow, was brokered by Berlin and Paris after several Ukrainian military defeats following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called for revisions to the agreement.
“You may like it or may not like it, but my beauty, you’ve got to put up with it,” the Russian president said, using a crude Russian saying.
Meanwhile, an influential separatist commander in Ukraine’s contested eastern territories reportedly urged Russia to send 30,000 reinforcements to bolster rebel forces. Alexander Khodakovsky said the separatists have 30,000 fighters of their own but that only 10,000 are fit for front-line duties. “We need to have at least 40,000, but 40,000 with automatic rifles on the front line,” he told Reuters.
Noack reported from Paris and Pannett from Sydney. Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.