France and Germany send envoys to help ease Ukraine-Russia border tensions

Foreign ministers hope four-way talks with Moscow and Kiev will lead to solution

Reservists from the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces take part in military exercises on the outskirts of Kiev. Reuters
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France and Germany will send their foreign ministers to Ukraine next month for four-way talks with Russia and Ukraine to calm tensions in Eastern Europe.

Jean-Yves Le Drian and Annalena Baerbock will make the trip on February 7 and 8, with Paris and Berlin seeking a diplomatic solution as military forces build up on the Ukraine-Russia border.

Mr Le Drian said on Saturday that France was continuing its “mobilisation to de-escalate tension” after he spoke to Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba.

Mr Le Drian said this would include talks in the Normandy format, a term for four-power mediation between Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany.

Representatives of those four countries met in Paris last week for the first time since 2019, raising hopes in Paris that dialogue was making progress.

France, where a presidential election is looming, and Germany have both spoken of the need for dialogue to ease tensions.

“We are obviously convinced that it's through dialogue, through political and diplomatic solutions, that we must solve this conflict,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly said.

Russia indicated a preference for talks with the US on Friday after describing America’s written security proposals as preferable to those submitted by Nato.

But European diplomats have been keen to pull their weight and prevent the former Cold War superpowers, the US and Russia, from deciding their fate alone.

Tensions were raised further when Russia imposed travel bans on EU officials, in a move condemned by Brussels as lacking legal justification.

“With it, Russia continues to fuel a climate of tensions in Europe instead of contributing to de-escalation,” European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said.

The French and German ministers will travel in the week after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to go to Eastern Europe to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

European powers have threatened Russia with sanctions if it attacks Ukraine, but rejected Moscow’s demands to stop Nato expansion on its borders.

Russia expressed frustration on this point on Friday, with Mr Putin telling French President Emmanuel Macron that the Kremlin’s concerns were being ignored.

Nato said that if Russia wanted fewer troops on its borders, its military manoeuvres were achieving the opposite.

Mr Kuleba said he was looking to European neighbours for ways to mitigate security risks to Ukraine, as fears that Russia will invade its ex-Soviet neighbour continue.

Moscow denies intending to do this, but has stationed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and was accused of a cyber attack on Ukrainian government ministries this month.

France and Ukraine agreed that it was “important to stay vigilant and firm” and work on diplomatic solutions, Mr Kuleba said.

Nato said it did not expect to send troops to Ukraine in the event of war, but is ready to bolster the defences of other Eastern European countries.

F-16 fighter jets from Belgium and Poland, two members of the alliance, flew over the Baltic nations as part of what Nato calls an air policing mission.

Denmark is sending F-16s to Lithuania, in what the latter country’s President Gitanas Nauseda said was a “splendid example of allied unity and solidarity”.

The Kremlin, in turn, is positioning military vehicles on the territory of its ally, Belarus, which like Russia is under EU sanctions.

Some Russian units and vehicles have mobilised to areas near Belarus's southern border with Ukraine, which is about 75 kilometres from Kiev.

Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, said joint drills would take place next month but that Minsk had no interest in provoking a war.

He said on Friday that the only reasons Belarus would go to war is if the country itself, or Russia, were directly attacked.

"We will stand up to defend our land,” he said, but added that “there will be no winners in this war”.

Updated: January 29, 2022, 6:27 PM