France pushes to defuse Ukraine crisis as US sees Russia ‘on brink’ of invasion

People attend a ceremony in Severodonetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Sunday to honour honouring the protesters killed by security forces in Kyiv in February 2014. Photograph: Lynsey Addario for The New York Times


France is leading a western diplomatic drive to defuse the explosive crisis between Moscow and Kyiv, after shelling intensified in eastern Ukraine and the United States said Russia appeared to be “on the brink” of launching a major new attack on its neighbour.

French president Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday, as some 150,000 Russian troops and heavy weaponry manoeuvred near the northern, southern and eastern borders of Ukraine.

The Élysée Palace said the French and Russian leaders agreed on the need to push for “a diplomatic solution to the current crisis and to do everything to achieve it”, adding that the two countries’ foreign ministers would hold talks this week.

The Kremlin said both presidents wanted “to search for a diplomatic solution . . . to help restore the ceasefire and ensure progress in settling the conflict around Donbas,” a divided region of eastern Ukraine.

‘Provocations’

However, Mr Putin also blamed Kyiv for “provocations” that created a “quickly deteriorating situation” in Donbas, where the militants are evacuating thousands of civilians in what the US calls a Kremlin bid to create a pretext for a new invasion of Ukraine, and where in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a war that has now killed 14,000 people.

A handout by the Russian emergency situations ministry shows people evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic arriving to the railway station in the city of Voronezh. Photograph: Handout/Russian emergency situations min/AFP via Getty Images

“Everything we are seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken told CNN on Sunday, citing developments in Donbas and the extension of war games in Belarus involving Russia troops.

“We believe President Putin has made the decision, but until the tanks are actually rolling, and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward,” he added.

British prime minister Boris Johnson told the BBC that “the plan that we are seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945”.

He said the West was prepared to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia in the event of a new attack – even seeking to stop its firms from trading in dollars and pounds – but acknowledged that it “may not be enough to deter an irrational actor”.

“We have to accept at the moment that Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” he added.

Nato demands

Mr Putin accuses the West of ignoring Russia’s security demands, chiefly for Nato to bar Ukraine from ever becoming a member and for the alliance to withdraw its forces from most of eastern Europe – steps the US has called “non-starters”.

The Kremlin has threatened to take unspecified “military-technical” measures to boost its security in the absence of a deal with the West, while building up a fearsome array of troops, missile systems, fighter jets, heavy artillery and naval power around Ukraine.

Mr Zelenskiy rallied western support for Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference and denounced militia shelling that he said killed two soldiers in Donbas on Saturday.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the overall mood at the high-level gathering “was very downbeat and I was very concerned that there was arguably more talk about how we would respond to a partial or full invasion of Ukraine rather than how we would stop it.

“We need to stop beating war drums and keep talking about compromise and de-escalation,” he told The Irish Times, adding that he was “surprised” by Mr Blinken’s assertion that Russia was “on the brink” of invading Ukraine.