KYIV -- France's President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday Russian President Vladimir Putin had assured him there would be no "escalation or deterioration" of the crisis around Ukraine, as French officials said there were signs Putin was moving towards de-escalation.
Macron said he obtained the assurances during the five hours of talks he held with Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday night. Following the talks, French officials said Putin had committed to not launch any new "military initiatives" and promised the thousands of Russian troops massed in Belarus to the north of Ukraine would leave after exercises ended there this month.
Macron flew to Kyiv on Tuesday to meet with Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, where during a joint press conference afterwards he said Putin had told him he would "not be the instigator of any escalation." He said "no one was naive" but that he believed some progress had been made.
“For me it was about arranging things to prevent an escalation and open up new avenues ... and that objective for me has been fulfilled,” Macron told reporters on the plane flying to Kyiv, according to AFP.
If true, the commitment not to launch new military action could be an important sign may be closer to taking Western diplomatic offers as a road out of the crisis, where the Russian build up near Ukraine has sparked fears of invasion.
But the Kremlin on Tuesday downplayed the French comments, denying that any deal had been reached.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Financial Times, which first reported the French claims, had “simply written incorrectly" and that it was impossible for Putin and Macron to reach a deal since France was not the leader of NATO, which would need to accept any agreement.
Peskov said Western countries for now were still ignoring Russia's key demands for security guarantees that Ukraine never join NATO, saying while grateful for Macron's efforts, “for now, of course, we can’t say we sense any real path to a resolution.”
But Peskov did confirm the promise Russian troops will leave Belarus once the joint exercises there end on Feb. 20.
“No one has ever said that Russian troops will remain on the territory of Belarus, that has never been a question,” Peskov told reporters. “On the conclusion of these exercises the troops will return to their place of permanent deployment."
Russia has been pouring trainloads of troops into Belarus amid its broader build up near Ukraine, alarming Western countries which fear they could be used as a cover for an attack. But Moscow and Minsk both insist the troops are there just for war games.
Putin and Macron’s marathon talks in the Kremlin Monday had ended with a glimmer of hope the Russian leader is ready to accept diplomacy. Putin afterwards told a press conference that Macron had brought “a range of ideas," which he said it was too early to talk about publicly, but that Putin said he considered “possible as the basis for our next steps.”
It was not clear what those ideas were. But French officials afterwards said Putin and Macron had agreed to “the initiation of a broader dialogue” on three key points: first, Russia’s military posture and second, the long-running ‘Normandy Format’ negotiations aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine between government and Russian-backed separatists in the east. Third, the “opening of a dialogue on strategic issues,” a phrase that refers to troop and weapon deployments, and wider questions of NATO’s relationship with Moscow.
Ukraine's Zelenskyy on Tuesday was also more sceptical of Putin's assurances, saying at the press conference with Macron: "I do not really trust words, I believe that every politician can be transparent by taking concrete steps".
Russia has denied it has any plans to attack Ukraine, calling the Western accusations hysteria. But it has continued to build up troops near to Ukraine, with more forces arriving in recent days and, according to open source researchers, some appearing to move closer to the border.
While massing troops near Ukraine, the Kremlin has demanded the United States and NATO give a binding guarantees on NATO membership and that the alliance pull back its infrastructure from eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War.
The U.S. and NATO countries, including France, have rejected those as non-starters, but have offered to engage with the Kremlin on more modest security issues, including limits on missile deployments and troop exercises.
Macron in front of Zelenskyy again affirmed NATO’s so-called "Open Doors" policy. Any diplomatic breakthrough would either have to find a creative way of reassuring the Kremlin on its main demands or for Putin to move back from them.
Macron and Zelenskyy both denied a report that Macron had raised the idea of so-called 'Finlandization' as a possible solution. The term refers to Finland's neutral status during the Cold War where it remained outside NATO in return for the Soviet Union largely recognising its independence.
Macron denied using the phrase or raising the concept with Putin, despite news reports he had told journalists it was one option "on the table." Zelenskyy said this was the first time he had heard of the idea and that he would never suggest "Ukraine-izing" other countries.
Both men emphasised the importance of talks planned this Thursday in the so-called 'Normandy' group, that is mediated by France and Germany to try to end Ukraine's conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the country.
The talks seek to unblock efforts to implement the 'Minsk agreement', which ended large-scale fighting in 2015 between Ukraine's government and the Russian-controlled rebels but has been largely deadlocked since.
It is not clear how that has changed, but Macron and Zelenskyy both spoke positively about Thursday's talks, saying they hoped they would make progress. Zelenskyy said he hoped the talks would move the possibility of a full-scale summit between the leaders of the four countries closer.
After meeting with Zelenskyy, Macron flew onto Berlin to meet with Germany's leader Olaf Scholz, who has just returned from Washington, where he met with President Joe Biden on Monday and discussed the crisis.
Macron and Scholz afterwards said their "common goal is to prevent war in Europe" and Scholz, who has been criticised as being too reluctant to threaten painful sanctions on Russia if it attacks, said they were united in preparing to respond.
"Our appraisal of the situation is united, as is our position on this: Any further attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is unacceptable and will draw wide-reaching consequences for Russia -- politically, economically and geo-strategically," Scholz said.