France leads new Ukraine talks as Macron consults Germany’s Scholz

Talks with Moscow, Kiev, Paris and Berlin planned on Wednesday to avert war in Eastern Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would talk to Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Friday as diplomatic efforts over the crisis on the Ukraine border shifted to a new round of four-way talks to clarify on Moscow's intentions over Ukraine.

Mr Macron warned that Russia faced "retaliation" and a "very high" price if it attacked Ukraine as Western leaders draw up prospective sanctions in the event of an incursion. Speaking alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the French President said Nato and EU allies were readying a "common response".

The French leader plans to host high-stakes talks in Paris on Wednesday between advisers and officials from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany to avert a war in Eastern Europe.

France hopes that the direct contact between the nations, known as the Normandy Format, will help defuse tension and forge a diplomatic path.

About 100,000 Russian troops are massed on its border with Ukraine, leading to fears in some western capitals that an invasion is imminent.

On Monday, Nato member states sent reinforcements to eastern Europe to bolster its forces there. Ukraine is not a member of Nato or the EU, but both have thrown their support behind Kiev.

Russia has criticised the West’s response as hysteria and says it has no plan to invade its neighbour.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged allies to prepare a new package of sanctions if Russia does attack.

“We have a hard-hitting package of sanctions ready to go, and what I think it would be fair to say is we want to see our European friends ready to deploy that package as soon as there should be any incursion at all by Russia into Ukraine,” he said.

Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs high representative, said on Tuesday that a sanctions package in response to any Russian incursion would be the “most consequential leverage that the West or European Union has” to impose.

Mr Johnson said that caution must be used so as not to give Russia a “pretext” to invade.

“We have to calculate and calibrate what we do very carefully and I think building a strong package of economic sanctions, continuing to supply defensive weaponry, and all the other things that we’re doing. That’s the right package,” he said.

Mr Johnson also said the UK would be prepared to send more troops to any new Nato deployments “to protect our allies in Europe” if a Russian attack did occur.

“If the worst happens and the destructive firepower of the Russian army were to engulf Ukraine’s towns and cities, I shudder to contemplate the tragedy that would ensue,” he said.

“Ukrainians have every moral and legal right to defend their country and I believe their resistance would be dogged and tenacious, and the bloodshed comparable to the first war in Chechnya or Bosnia, or any other conflict that Europe has endured since 1945. No one would gain from such a catastrophe.”

High-level diplomatic meetings between Russia and the West have failed to make headway.

Moscow has called for several security guarantees from Nato, including a ban on Ukraine joining the military alliance. Nato rejected this out of hand.

Mr Johnson said such a proposal “would divide our continent once again”.

“We cannot bargain away the vision of a Europe whole and free that emerged in those amazing years from 1989 to 1991,” he said, a reference to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of Communist rule in eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Healing the division of our continent by the Iron Curtain, we will not reopen that divide by agreeing to overturn the European security order because Russia has placed a gun to Ukraine’s head.”

Russia has already invaded Ukraine once, annexing the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It also backed pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kiev government in the Donbass region.

Referring to when he spoke to Mr Putin in December, Mr Johnson said he had emphasised that Nato has no thought of encircling or threatening Russia.

“I said that any attack on his neighbour would be followed by tougher sanctions against Russia, further steps to help Ukraine defend herself and by an increased Nato presence to protect our allies on Nato’s eastern flank.”

Poland’s prime minister criticised Germany for reportedly blocking Estonia, a Nato member, from giving Ukraine military support.

“I observe with concern the situation in Ukraine and the reactions of our neighbours from Germany in the face of the threat from Russia,” Mateusz Morawiecki wrote in a Facebook post.

“A great disappointment is, among other things, Germany withholding its consent for the supply of weapons from Estonia to a state that is preparing to defend itself against an aggressor.”

Mr Scholz has said Germany has not supported the export of weapons in recent years.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 6:20 PM