BRUSSELS (AP) — Several world leaders lined up Monday to walk a diplomatic tightrope that could mean the difference between war in Ukraine and an uneasy peace there as Russia’s menacing actions on the border of its neighbor continued unabated.
Here’s a look at what is happening where and why:
Russian President Vladimir Putin was back at the Kremlin in Moscow following his diplomatic foray to get support from China over the weekend during the Winter Olympics. Putin was hosting the prime meeting of the day Monday as his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron was on a mission to de-escalate tensions.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the United States and Europe remained unified on not only the nature of the Russian threat to Ukraine but the consequences that Russia would face if it invaded. They also defended the increasingly dire warnings that a Russian invasion may be imminent.
“This is not alarmism. This is simply the facts,” Blinken said at a news conference in Washington.
Later in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House to shore up Western resolve against what they see as Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Western estimates that some 100,000 Russian troops have massed near Ukraine are increasing worries that an offensive could be only days away.
At the same time, borders of NATO nations that are close to Russia are also being shored up. Germany, which is often accused of being too lackadaisical toward Moscow, and Britain added to that effort on Monday and NATO itself also has plans.
FRANCE MAKES A BIG PUSH FOR DE-ESCALATION
Even if the 27-nation European Union as bloc has had little impact on the crisis over Ukraine, France has always felt it could force a breakthrough in the East-West stalemate.
Moscow is only the first of a one-two diplomatic dance that will also take the French leader to Kyiv on Tuesday. His priority is simple — a dialogue with Russia and de-escalation. What makes the execution of that much more complicated is the need to keep a unified Western front among over two dozen players in the face of the Kremlin monolith.
Macron’s essential challenge is to make sure first that things don’t get worse on the ground. “We can prevent some things in the short term,” he said in Moscow, but added “I don’t think there are short-term victories.”
“I don’t believe in spontaneous miracles. There are lots of tensions, nervousness,” Macron said. Over the weekend, he alluded to Putin’s potential strategy of mainly using the Ukraine crisis to improve Russia’s rules of cohabitation with NATO and the EU on a continent where the aftermath of World War II once set clear spheres of geopolitical influence.
Macron has said that Moscow’s arguments should be listened to. He told Putin at the beginning of their meeting that “dialogue is necessary because that’s the only thing that will help, in my views, to build a context of a security and stability on the European continent.”
“Today’s discussion may be a first step,” Macron said.
AFTER FRENCH MOVE, GERMANY STEPS UP
France and Germany have worked in tandem before. Seven years ago, they were essential in creating a peace deal for eastern Ukraine in a bid to end fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists that erupted in 2014 following the Russian annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Ukrainian officials have called that peace deal unworkable and divisive, but it did tamp down the fighting.
Germany has been criticized for being slow and halfhearted in its approach to the Ukraine crisis but on Monday, Europe’s economic powerhouse was moving on different fronts. As Chancellor Scholz got ready for his meeting with Biden, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had meetings in Kyiv with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and was set on Tuesday to visit the “line of contact” with pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Germany’s show of solidarity comes amid tensions over Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to Ukraine. Yet Baerbock said “we stand — without ifs or buts — by the territorial integrity of the country and at the side of the people in Ukraine.”
Baerbock added that “together, we will react with hard and very concrete measures to any further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”
To show that the Franco-German diplomatic effort is far from over, Scholz will meet Macron and their Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda to discuss the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday. That will allow the three leaders to compare notes after Scholz’s meeting with Biden and Macron’s trips to Russia and Ukraine.
MORE TROOPS BOLSTER NATO’S EASTERN FRONT
Britain says it is sending 350 troops to Poland as part of efforts to bolster NATO forces in eastern Europe amid a Russian military build-up near Ukraine. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace says the troops will join 100 Royal Engineers already in Poland.
Germany decided to send more troops to Lithuania, further reinforcing its presence on NATO’s eastern flank, in a move that comes amid criticism of Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to Kyiv. Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said she will add up to 350 troops to a NATO battlegroup it leads in the Baltic nation, where it already has some 500 soldiers.
Lambrecht said, with the move, Germany is “sending a very clear signal of unity to our allies. We can be relied on and we are showing that with this strengthening of the battlegroup.”
Scholz on Thursday will host the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, the three Baltic states who feel the heat from Moscow, before traveling to Ukraine and Russia next week.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also said the alliance is weighing a more permanent military presence in southeast Europe.
“We are considering more longer-term adjustments to our posture, our presence in the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg told reporters after talks with Poland’s president. “If Russia really wants less NATO close to the borders, they get the opposite.”
HOW IS EUROPE GOING TO FIND MORE GAS?
When it comes to feeling the heat during winter, Europe is particularly dependent on Russia’s energy supplies. The EU is also complaining that Moscow has not been forthcoming with additional gas shipments to Europe when market logic, with its current sky-high prices, would make it a no-brainer.
Over 40% of Europe’s gas supplies come from Russia. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on the eve of Monday’s EU-US energy meeting in Washington that “Russia has already in the past used energy supplies for political purposes.” Now the 27-nation bloc desperately needs to diversify its gas sources, and is finding a helping hand in Washington.
“The United States will do everything we can to help ease any disruptions to Europe’s energy supply, and indeed, we already are,” Blinken said, adding that Washington is in talks with major producers and nations around the world.