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Ukraine crisis: World leaders step up talks amid invasion fears

Image source, Reuters

World leaders are stepping up efforts to reduce tensions over Ukraine as fears of a Russian invasion grow.

French President Emmanuel Macron is meeting Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow, while US President Joe Biden hosts German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington.

Russia currently has more than 100,000 troops massed on Ukraine’s borders.

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Western powers accuse the country of planning an invasion, something Russia has repeatedly denied.

In recent weeks, Moscow has demanded that the Western military alliance Nato ban Ukraine from ever becoming a member, and that the group cuts its troop numbers in eastern Europe.

Nato has rejected both demands. It has instead suggested talks on other areas, such as limiting nuclear weapons.

The tensions between Russia, Ukraine and the West come nearly eight years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea peninsula and backed a bloody rebellion in the eastern Donbas region.

Moscow accuses the Ukrainian government of failing to implement the Minsk agreement – an international deal sponsored by Germany and France to restore peace to the east, where Russian-backed rebels control swathes of territory and at least 14,000 people have been killed since 2014.

Macron ‘hopes to avoid war’

The French president – who is expected to seek re-election in April – is speaking with Mr Putin in the Russian capital on Monday evening. The pair will then hold a joint news conference.

As talks began the Russian president praised Mr Macron for his efforts “to resolve the crisis” in Ukraine.

Mr Macron meanwhile said he hoped to “avoid a war”, and that the talks aimed to de-escalate tensions and build “elements of confidence, stability and visibility for everyone”.

France currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. On Tuesday, Mr Macron will fly on to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, for talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Vladimir Putin (left) and Emmanuel Macron (right)

Image source, Getty Images

Ahead of the trip, Mr Macron told a French newspaper that he believed a deal over Ukraine was within reach, and said Russia had a right to raise its own security concerns.

Russia’s objective was “not Ukraine, but a clarification of the rules… with Nato and the EU”, he said.

But Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, tampered down expectations for the talks on Monday.

There has been “nothing new on the topic of security guarantees for Russia” in recent days, he said in quotes published by Reuters news agency. “The situation is too complex to expect decisive breakthroughs in the course of one meeting.”

Separately, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has flown to Washington for talks with US President Joe Biden.

It comes after public criticism at home and abroad of Germany for not doing enough to support Ukraine. While Mr Scholz has said Russia would pay a “high price” for an invasion, his country has refused to send lethal weaponry to Ukraine.

On Monday, however, Germany’s defence minister announced the country would send a further 350 troops to Lithuania, to add to Nato’s presence there. There are already 500 German troops stationed in the country.

The US and German leaders are likely to discuss Nord Stream 2, a key gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany. The US has threatened to stop the pipeline from opening, while Germany has only said it will not rule out imposing sanctions on the project.

Mr Biden and Mr Scholz will also hold a news conference after their discussions on Monday.

Like Mr Macron, the German chancellor will also head to Kyiv later this week for further talks.

Elsewhere on Monday, UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace announced his country would be sending an additional 350 troops to Poland amid tensions over Ukraine, to “send a strong signal that Britain and Poland stand side by side”.

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