Europe calls for peace, but not at any price

BERLIN — After two days of intense diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic over the Ukraine crisis, French, German and Polish leaders said their overriding goal was the preservation of peace in Europe, but warned Russia disastrous consequences if it launched further incursions. in Ukraine.

“We share a goal,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Tuesday after the leaders’ meeting in Berlin. “Preserving peace in Europe with diplomacy and clear messages and the common will to act together.”

But, he said, peace cannot come at any cost. Speaking a day after meeting President Biden in Washington, Mr. Scholz continued: “A further violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty is unacceptable and would have profound consequences for Russia, politically, economically and surely strategically too.

It was one of the strongest statements to date on Mr. Scholz’s crisis. Germany has been criticized for what has been seen as a weak response to the massive buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. But the meeting with Mr Biden appears to have strengthened the resolve of the Chancellor, who took office just two months ago.

He was accompanied by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland, who called the situation “the most difficult since 1989”. Europe, he added, “hasn’t seen this kind of troop movement since World War II.”

Poland’s sensitivity to Russian aggression is particularly acute after spending the post-war decades trapped in the totalitarian Soviet empire, and its feelings are widely shared in central and eastern Europe.

Mr Putin’s troop build-up has pivoted the United States towards Europe, rekindled a NATO alliance focused on its original mission and threatened the continent’s painstakingly built security.

Mr Macron started the day in Moscow after meeting President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday, and he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv earlier on Tuesday. “We want to continue the dialogue with Russia to avoid the risk of escalation and allow de-escalation,” he said.

Previously, Mr Macron had claimed to have obtained from Russia a commitment of “no degradation or escalation” in Ukraine, opening new avenues of negotiation on the “collective security of the European space”.

But the Kremlin gave a more cautious account. Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, dismissed reports that the two presidents had reached a de-escalation agreement and suggested that the United States, not France, had standing to negotiate a such agreement.

In a 45-minute chat with reporters on the plane from Moscow to Kyiv, Mr Macron said he never “for a second” expected Mr Putin to make a grand gesture, but he did. considered that he had succeeded in his objective of “freezing the game.

It may seem like a paltry goal, but with around 130,000 Russian troops stationed just outside Ukraine, any pause would be an opportunity for negotiation.

If Mr Putin has pledged not to escalate, how long that might hold is unclear. The French president suggested at least a period of weeks. But in Moscow, Mr. Peskov sounded a more threatening note.

Despite “seeds of reason” in Mr Macron’s approach, he said, “so far we do not see or feel the willingness of our Western counterparts to take our concerns into account”.

The crisis, he said, had not been defused, even as Mr Macron’s top diplomatic adviser deemed the risks of war to be “low”.

After talks with Zelensky, Macron said both sides were open to pursuing peace in Ukraine’s eastern provinces seized by Moscow-backed proxies.

Mr Zelensky, alongside the French president in Berlin, called Mr Putin’s openness to the talks “good if it’s serious and not a game”. He was skeptical.

Officials representing Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany will meet in Berlin on Thursday to discuss reviving the Minsk 2 agreement, which aimed to end fighting in breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine. “It’s the only path to a viable political solution,” Macron said of the deal, which has been plagued with disputes over its meaning and proven unenforceable since it was struck in 2015.

This question, however, is only a small part of the problem, as Mr. Putin is targeting both NATO and Ukraine’s breakaway provinces. More than a border dispute, the crisis raises the question of how European security will be ensured for many years to come.

Sensing the power shift in his leadership from a fractured United States, Mr Putin wants to settle what he sees as long-owed scores from the West’s humiliation of Russia after the end of the Cold War. NATO, through its expansion, provided security and stability to oppressed countries in the Soviet system, but at the cost of enduring Russian anger and alienation.

Mr Macron described Mr Putin as locked in a “revisionist” logic. Officials close to the French leader have portrayed a hardened and rigid Russian president — as if in a “bunker”, in the words of one of them.

The United States and its allies have dismissed as non-participants Russian demands to halt NATO expansion into parts of Eastern Europe that Moscow considers to be within its sphere of influence. Mr. Putin also wants to push NATO out of countries formerly controlled by the Soviets.

Mr. Putin has massed troops on the eastern border of Ukraine but also in the north, in Belarus, where tens of thousands of people have gathered, theoretically for military exercises which will end on February 20. Their presence raised fears that the Russian president could establish military forces. bases in Belarus, maintain troops there and even deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of its neighbour. Kiev is only 140 miles from the Belarusian border.

Mr Macron said he had obtained assurances from Mr Putin that the troops would be withdrawn immediately after the exercise. Mr Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Mr Putin had not given a date for the withdrawal, adding: “Nobody ever said Russian troops would stay in Belarus. It was never on the agenda. »

Analyzing Mr Putin’s behavior before his arrival in Berlin, Mr Macron said the Russian leader “legitimizes what he is doing as a NATO reactive”. The result was that Mr. Putin, in his narrative, could always find a pretext for aggression. “Every time we talk about NATO enlargement, it comes up against Russian military action that reduces the sovereignty of Georgia or Ukraine,” Macron said.

Continuing a favored theme of a new configuration for European security with a more powerful Europe at its heart, Mr Macron said that “we have to think about the sovereignty and independence of these countries in a different form”. The independence of a country like Ukraine must be guaranteed, as well as its sovereignty and the rule of law, but also its viability. It was time, he argued, “to reinvent a path to stability.”

In Berlin, Mr. Duda, the Polish president, had more immediate concerns than the future strategic architecture of Europe. “We all wonder, what happens next? What will be the result? he said. “It is up to us to safeguard international law and territorial integrity, also for countries that are not members of the European Union or NATO, but are our allies.”

He added: “We have to show that we are not backing down. We leave no one behind. »

Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting.

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