Putin warns the West and Ukraine, but keeps his intentions secret

MOSCOW – President Vladimir V. Putin has said he is ready to continue negotiations on Russia’s security demands in Eastern Europe, but has issued a stern warning about the possibility of full-scale war between Russia and the West – in a five-hour meeting with his French counterpart on Monday to let the world guess his intentions.

Mr Putin said the proposals made by French President Emmanuel Macron during their individual talks in the Kremlin were “too early to talk about”, but could create “a basis for our next steps”. Mr Macron, in a joint press conference with Mr Putin after their hastily scheduled meeting, described the next few days as potentially decisive in averting what the West fears will be a Russian invasion of Ukraine .

“We are in a situation of extreme tension, a degree of incandescence that Europe has rarely experienced in recent decades,” Macron said.

The meeting came as President Biden welcomed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to the White House to coordinate a transatlantic response to a potential attack on Ukraine, underscoring the intense unease in the West over Mr. Putin around the borders of Ukraine.

Mr Biden said Monday that Western countries would take a “united” approach to rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and he promised that a controversial pipeline project designed to send gas from Russia to Germany would not go ahead in the event of a military invasion.

Mr Putin seemed to appreciate the attention – and signaled he was ready to lift the mystery around his next moves that have turned Russia’s troop build-up into the West’s most pressing crisis. The Russian leader is a passionate geopolitical tactician, and Monday’s simultaneous talks in Moscow and Washington showed his ability to force the West to pay attention to the Kremlin’s long-standing grievances over NATO’s expansion to the borders of Russia.

But whether that attention will be enough to satisfy Mr. Putin is far from clear. Some analysts fear his engagement in diplomacy in recent weeks will only buy the Russian military time to make final preparations for an invasion.

Mr Putin said Russia was still working on a new written response in its exchanges with NATO and the US on Eastern Europe’s security architecture, predicting the ‘dialogue’ would continue even though he said the West had ignored Russia’s main demands.

He told Kremlin reporters that if Ukraine joined NATO — a scenario Western officials say is a remote possibility but the Kremlin describes as an existential threat — a wider war would follow.

“Do you want France to go to war with Russia? Mr Putin said when answering a French journalist’s question, saying a NATO-allied Ukraine would seek to retake Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. “That’s what will to arrive !”

Mr Putin reserved his greatest anger for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Asked whether Russia would invade Ukraine, Putin did not rule out the possibility. He insisted that Mr Zelensky must implement the peace plan negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015 – a plan that could give the Kremlin a means to influence Ukraine’s foreign policy decisions.

“You may like it, you may not like it – face it, sweetie,” Mr Putin said of Mr Zelensky, repeating a crude Russian rhyme.

Mr. Macron was due to fly to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on Tuesday to continue his shuttle diplomacy during a meeting with Mr. Zelensky. The French president has become Europe’s main interlocutor with Mr. Putin in the crisis; the two have spoken on the phone five times since December, and Mr. Putin said they would speak again after Mr. Macron’s visit to Ukraine.

The meeting of the two presidents on Monday evening was unusual in both its length and its format – the men spoke one-on-one, with no assistants in the room. They held a joint press conference which began around midnight Moscow time.

Mr Macron said he had coordinated closely with Western allies, including the United States and Germany. But some supporters of Ukraine’s pro-Western course have criticized it for being overly concerned with Mr Putin’s demands. Mr Macron did nothing to allay those concerns, telling reporters ahead of his meeting with Mr Putin that a “Finlandisation” of Ukraine was “one of the models on the table”.

The term alludes to how Finland, faced with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, was able to maintain its independence from its powerful neighbor and survive as a democracy on the condition of strict neutrality. A “Finlandization” of Ukraine would imply that it would never join NATO and that Russia would exert considerable influence on its political options.

Mr Macron did not address the model at the press conference after Monday’s meeting, but he underlined his belief that Russia’s concerns could be addressed without compromising fundamental Western principles.

“Russia is European,” Mr. Macron said. “Those who believe in Europe must know how to work with Russia and find ways and means to build the European future among Europeans.”

Mr Macron said the West and Russia needed to overcome the traumas of the past and build “useful solutions”. He said the “first priority” of his visit was to ensure military stability and avoid “short-term” war. Discussions could then continue to build “medium-term solutions”.

“Can NATO solve the whole question of our collective security? Mr. Macron said. “I do not believe.”

The French president gave few details about his ideas, but said they would involve rethinking post-Cold War security arrangements because “there is no security for Europeans if there is no there is no security for Russia”.

Mr Putin hinted that proposals were on the table that the two leaders were not disclosing publicly.

“A number of his ideas or proposals – which are probably too early to talk about – seem to me rather feasible to create a basis for our next steps,” Putin said.

Russia has amassed a large military force near Ukraine’s eastern, northern and southern borders – about 130,000 troops, according to US and Ukrainian officials, in addition to tanks, anti-aircraft batteries and other war materials, and specialized units to support combat operations.

Biden administration officials have warned for months that Mr Putin appears to be preparing for an invasion, while acknowledging that his intentions are unclear and he himself may not yet know what he is going to do. To do. Russian officials insist there are no plans for an invasion.

“I don’t know if he knows what he’s going to do,” Mr. Biden said of the Russian leader during his White House press conference on Monday alongside Mr. Scholz, the German chancellor. Mr Biden added: “I have been very, very frank and frank with President Putin, both on the phone and in person: we will impose the toughest sanctions ever imposed.

Given the threat of war, Mr Biden advised American civilians in Ukraine to leave the country, adding that he “would hate to see them caught in the crossfire if they invaded”.

Despite insisting that NATO be united, Mr. Scholz resisted pressure from the United States to take a hard line on Russia, refusing to send arms to Ukraine or specify the economic sanctions that the Germany would impose. His vague stance drew criticism in Washington from Democrats and Republicans, and some in Germany.

But Mr. Biden has dismissed any suggestion that Mr. Scholz is seen as an unreliable ally. “There is no need to regain trust,” he said. “He has the full confidence of the United States.”

Germany relies heavily on oil and gas purchased from Russia, and Nord Stream 2, a near-complete $11 billion project, would dramatically increase Russia’s ability to send gas to Western Europe.

“If Russia invades, that means tanks and troops are crossing the Ukrainian border again, then there will be no more Nord Stream 2,” Biden said. “We will end it.”

Yet even then, Mr. Scholz, in response to repeated questioning, would not explicitly agree with Mr. Biden that the project would be halted, saying only, “we are absolutely united.”

Since taking office in December, the Chancellor has stayed out of the spotlight, leaving Mr Macron and others to take the lead in diplomacy on Ukraine. He has only spoken to Mr Putin once since taking office, and his meeting on Monday with Mr Biden was his first. But next week he will travel to Kiev and Moscow.

Mr Biden said the Germans supported a “strong package” of sanctions against Russia if Mr Putin went ahead, but neither he nor Mr Scholz detailed what they would be. In recent weeks, Mr. Biden has threatened tough economic sanctions against Russia’s financial sector and members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle in the event of an invasion.

“It’s a good idea to tell our American friends: we will be united,” Scholz said at their press conference, briefly switching from German to English. “We will act together, and we will take all necessary measures and all necessary measures will be taken by the two of us together.”

Anton Troianovski and Roger Cohen reported from Moscow. Katie Rogers reported from Washington, DC Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from Berlin.

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