MOSCOW — Senior representatives of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine are to meet in Paris Wednesday in a bid to revive the stalled Ukraine peace process, as analysts warn that Russia’s military escalation near Ukraine’s borders is moving into a more advanced stage.
Amid intensifying fears of a new Russian invasion of Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron will put his own proposal to de-escalate the crisis to Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call Friday.
Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops and military equipment near Ukraine and is running simultaneous military exercises, as two weeks of high-level shuttle diplomacy has failed to resolve the crisis over Moscow’s demand that Ukraine and other countries be blocked from NATO membership.
Macron is pushing a more proactive European role in resolving the security crisis, as the United States seeks to maintain transatlantic unity on tough sanctions to deter a new Russian attack on Ukraine.
But with NATO firmly ruling out Russia’s key demands — including an end to NATO expansion and removal of NATO forces and equipment from Eastern Europe — doubts remain about whether French efforts to revive the Ukraine peace process can help de-escalate the crisis.
The United States warned Tuesday that it could impose some of its toughest sanctions ever on Russia if it attacks Ukraine, as Washington moves to prepare European allies for a potential Kremlin-initiated fuel crisis.
The Biden administration is “prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. The “top of the escalation ladder” could involve using an export control that would cripple parts of Russian tech and aerospace industries, while depriving Russians of some tech consumer goods, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the White House. Such a measure has been used only once, against the Chinese tech company Huawei.
President Biden also warned of personal sanctions against Putin, in what would be an unprecedented move against the leader of a major power. Britain and the United States have discussed blocking Russia from the SWIFT international payments system, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday. He said such a move would “be a very potent weapon,” noting that U.S. collaboration would be necessary to carry out such an action.
Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz on Tuesday supported a diplomatic solution to the crisis but insisted that Western powers are united over strong sanctions on Russia should it invade, speaking at a joint news conference after meeting in Berlin.
Paris is pushing to reinvigorate the Normandy Format talks, a long-standing but stalled peace effort involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia to implement the 2015 Minsk peace agreement and resolve an eight-year conflict in eastern Ukraine. Political advisers from the four countries are to meet in Paris on Wednesday.
Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of breaching the Minsk deal, which has failed to end the war over two separatist Russian-backed areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The conflict has raged since 2014, shortly after Russia annexed Crimea, claiming more than 13,000 lives.
Macron “remains determined to use all the resources of diplomacy to preserve the stability of Europe and to show his solidarity and his readiness to support the States of the European Union concerned for their security,” according to a statement from the Élysée Palace Monday.
But the entrenched differences between Russia and Ukraine make a swift breakthrough unlikely, a position complicated by Russia’s insistence that the war is an internal Ukrainian conflict, to which Moscow is not a party.
Moscow officials insist the crisis between Russia and NATO is not limited to Ukraine’s aim to join NATO, but the larger question of the alliance’s expansion into Eastern Europe since 1997, when Russia was weakened following the fall of the Soviet Union.
As Russia mounts simultaneous military exercises across the country involving the deployment of tactical missiles, Moscow officials deny any plans for an attack on Ukraine and insist on its right to deploy its military wherever it likes in Russia.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned last month that Moscow may deploy nuclear missiles closer to Europe unless Washington and NATO accept all Russia’s demands.
Russia has also threatened to cut off the supply of natural gas it sends to Europe if sanctions are imposed. The move would be a significant blow against U.S. allies on the continent — which relies on Russia for about 40 percent of its natural gas needs — and could set off a global energy crisis.
Some European leaders, particularly those with closer ties to Russia, have expressed a reluctance to confront the Kremlin too directly. U.S. officials noted that limiting gas exports would also harm Russia, but that the Biden administration was nevertheless preparing for the scenario.
Another U.S. official said the administration was “working with countries and companies around the world to ensure the security of supply and to mitigate against price shocks affecting both the American people and the global economy.” Biden plans to host Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, one of the world’s largest exporters of liquefied natural gas, at the White House on Monday. The pair are set to discuss “ensuring the stability of global energy supplies” and channeling Qatari gas to Europe, the administration said.
With tensions growing, Moscow and Washington have accused each other of stoking fears of an all-out war.
U.S. officials have said there are no plans to increase the nation’s military presence in Ukraine, where approximately 200 American troops are training and advising Ukrainian forces, but Washington has stepped up other forms of assistance. At Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Tuesday, Ukrainian personnel unloaded some 300 Javelin missiles, shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapons and bunker-busters that had come from the United States. Other NATO members are also sending military equipment to aid in the defense of Ukraine, which is not a member of the Western military alliance.
Biden said he may forward-deploy U.S. troops “in the near term” because “it takes time” to get them in place. He insisted such a move would not be “provocative,” a claim Moscow has rejected.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday urged people there to stay calm, telling them to “protect your heart from panic.”
Still, U.S. officials remained concerned about the growing presence of more than 100,000 Russian troops along Ukraine’s borders. “It’s like a gun to the head of Ukraine, and we don’t think that Ukraine should have to live with a loaded gun to its head,” the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Kristina A. Kvien, said on ABC News.
In what appeared to be another attempt to undermine Western unity, Putin on Wednesday is set to meet with the leaders of top Italian companies for a discussion on boosting business ties, Reuters reported.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is set to visit Ukraine next week, even as Britain, the United States and Canada have pulled some embassy staffers and their families from the country and told their citizens to go home or avoid travel to Ukraine. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has warned Americans there to leave over concerns that an attack could happen “at any time.”
Pietsch reported from Seoul.