Russian, Ukrainian officials meet in bid to ease tensions

AFP , Wednesday 26 Jan 2022

Russian and Ukrainian delegations met in Paris for talks on Wednesday in a bid to defuse soaring tensions, with France seeking to usher both sides down a "path to de-escalation".

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron gestues as he speaks during a media conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz head of their meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. AP

The high-level meeting, attended by senior diplomats from France and Germany, brings together the four countries in a format that has been used repeatedly since Russia's 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

Russia is represented by vice-prime minister Dmitri Kozak and Ukraine by presidential advisor Andriy Yermak, with diplomatic advisors to President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also taking part in the talks that began at 1100 GMT.

France, which floated ideas for a "de-escalation" on Monday and is keen for Europe to try to solve the crisis, is hoping that Russia is prepared to engage in talks at a time when it has massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border.

"It's very encouraging that the Russians agreed to enter into this diplomatic format again, the only one in which the Russians are stakeholders," an aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

"This meeting will give us a clear indication of the Russians' mindset before the call between Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday," the aide added.

Each side is expected to brief the media later in the day.

Separate talks between Russia and the United States have been held in recent weeks to discuss Russian security demands in Europe, including that Ukraine should never become a member of the US-led NATO military alliance.

After discussions last Friday in Geneva, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Washington would give a written response to Russian demands and also floated the idea of a presidential meeting.

'Play The Game'

The talks in Paris on Wednesday come as Western powers keep up their warnings of massive economic sanctions in the event of a Russian attack on pro-Western Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden warned Tuesday of personal sanctions on Putin, while the White House says the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine "remains imminent."

Concerned about the rhetoric in Washington and London, and their decision to withdraw some embassy staff and families in Kyiv, an aide to Macron warned on Monday about "creating any ambiguity or creating any additional volatility."

"We want a de-escalation, which means both dialogue and dissuasion," the aide said on Wednesday.

"Discussions about sanctions with our European and American partners, with institutions, is taking place to ensure that this dissuasion is sufficiently credible so that the dialogue is credible. They are linked," the aide added.

"But the sanctions must not lead to retaliation that will boomerang on us and have a cost," the aide said. "Sanctions are not be-all and end-all of the response."

The US has also been drawing up plans to shore up European gas supply should Russia cut off shipments through its pipelines in response to Western sanctions.

The White House announced Tuesday that Biden would meet with the emir of gas-rich Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on January 31 to discuss, among other issues, "ensuring the stability of global energy supplies."

Confidence Building

The French plan, as detailed by an aide to Macron on Monday, would entail both sides taking steps to build confidence.

Ukraine's government has made the first move envisaged by the French by withdrawing a bill in parliament governing the status of Russian-backed separatist provinces in the east of the country, which Moscow sees as violating previous commitments.

Paris is hoping that Russia will agree to some "humanitarian measures" such as prisoner exchanges in eastern Ukraine and the opening of checkpoints manned by the separatists.

France also would push for "a public statement from the Russians about their intentions that reassures everyone," the aide said.

One major possible area of discord is France's backing for talks between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the east -- something President Zelensky has refused to do.

Senior diplomatic advisors from the four Normandy Format countries last spoke by video conference in September last year, according to Macron's office.

The leaders last met for a four-way summit in Paris in December 2019.

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