War of words with Russia: what leaders said on Ukraine and what they meant

Flurry of diplomacy leaves world leaders still spelling out contrary positions

Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin arrive for a press conference at the Kremlin. AFP
Powered by automated translation

In a week of frenzied diplomacy, leaders trying to solve the Ukraine crisis met for talks at military headquarters, inside the Oval Office and across an outlandishly long table — then they turned to the cameras to make their case to the world.

Their public statements did not bring news of major diplomatic breakthroughs, with Russia still demanding security guarantees which western powers say are unacceptable and cannot be properly discussed without de-escalation in Ukraine.

But their appearances revealed much about what the key players are thinking and what they want.

The West: we all agree … on this at least

What they said:

"If Russia chooses conflict, we will impose massive consequences and severe costs.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

“Any further aggression against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs for Russia.”

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell

What it means:

Near-identical versions of this statement have been uttered so many times by western leaders and diplomats that it would almost be more newsworthy if they deviated from the script.

That in itself is a show of unity among friendly but not always perfectly aligned groupings such as Nato, the EU and the G7.

The words are also vague enough to sound ominous for Russia without committing the speaker to any specific policy towards Moscow.

This helps to ensure unity because there is not total agreement on what punishing Russia should look like, with Germany, for example, evading attempts to pin it down on the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz acknowledged that diplomats were keeping their threats deliberately vague. “I think that makes sense because we can gain a little bit of power,” he said.

Russia: us against the West

What they said:

“It is not us moving towards Nato but Nato moving towards us.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

What it means:

Mr Putin is, as ever, ready with a counter-example to poke holes in the West’s logic.

Nato is a defensive alliance, say its members. Ask the people of countries invaded by the US about that, says Mr Putin. Russia is amassing its forces near Ukraine, says the West — but these are movements on home territory, says the Kremlin, unlike Nato deployments in Poland and Lithuania.

Such statements are typical of a so-called whataboutism that has characterised Russian diplomacy since the days of the Soviet Union.

But they have helped Mr Putin to characterise the stand-off as being provoked by Nato's supposed expansion towards Moscow rather than by Russia’s build-up of more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine.

In this, Russia has won international backing from China, another power often at odds with the West, which described the Kremlin as having “legitimate security concerns” which the US should take seriously.

Macron: give me time

What they said:

“We cannot resolve this crisis in a few hours of talks. It will be the day and the weeks and the months to come that will allow us to progress”

French President Emmanuel Macron

All leaders involved have at least half an eye on their domestic audience, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson keen to divert attention from his political woes and Germany’s Mr Scholz criticised at home for a cautious response to the crisis.

But these political needs are especially acute for Mr Macron only two months before the first round of presidential elections. By emphasising the severity of the crisis and the lengthy negotiations ahead, Mr Macron has sought to justify delaying a formal entry into the race.

It also has the advantage of positioning France as a diplomatic heavyweight at a time when Mr Macron’s rivals accuse him of presiding over national decline.

“A diplomatic success will boost Macron’s re-election prospects whereas failure could jeopardise them,” said Steven Philip Kramer, a France expert at the Wilson Centre in the US.

“Success would also strengthen France’s claim to European leadership at a time when Germany is barely visible.”

Nato: Europe needs us

What they said:

“Nato will do whatever is necessary to protect and defend all allies.”

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

What it means:

The Ukraine crisis comes at a time when Nato’s role is up for debate, after the chaotic exit from Afghanistan amplified calls for Europe to carve out more independence from the US.

That has made Nato eager to position itself as an indispensable protector against Russia, especially for countries in Eastern Europe who are wary of loosening ties with the US.

Mr Stoltenberg said Nato had already increased its presence in Central and Eastern Europe, including via US deployments in Poland, Germany and Romania.

The word “allies” is also carefully chosen. It means Nato would defend any of its 30 member countries from an attack by Russia. But the term does not apply to Ukraine, officially a “partner”, which could not expect Nato to directly intervene on its behalf.

Britain: still a heavyweight

What they said:

“The UK’s commitment to European security is unconditional and immovable. We have the biggest defence budget in Europe and the second largest in Nato.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

What it means:

Opponents of Brexit have long argued that Britain has less global influence outside the EU. Ministers are trying to prove them wrong.

They highlight the UK’s independent sanctions policy, expanded this week to line up potential penalties on Kremlin-linked businesses, as a benefit of leaving the EU because Britain can act quickly without 28-country negotiations.

Other eye-catching interventions by the UK include sending two ministers to Moscow this week and revealing what it claimed was a Russian plot for a coup in Ukraine.

“I think that the UK has been able to help to bring people together,” said Mr Johnson, with Britain inviting Russia to talks via Nato and the UN Security Council.

But critics say the partygate scandal engulfing the government is undermining its standing abroad, with Mr Johnson unable to escape questions about Downing Street parties even at Nato headquarters in Brussels this week.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace rejected that argument. “What’s absolutely the case is Britain is recognised as a serious player,” he said.

Germany: you can trust us

What they said:

“This is a good idea to say to our American friends: we will be united, we will act together and we will take all the necessary steps.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz

What it means:

Germany has found itself unusually isolated among major Nato powers after refusing to export weapons to Ukraine and keeping its options open on Nord Stream 2.

Although Mr Scholz inherited these positions from previous governments when he took office in December, they have left him exposed to criticism as he tackles his first major crisis.

In response, Germany has emphasised its financial backing for Ukraine and its military support for Nato members such as Lithuania. Mr Scholz used his trip to Washington on Monday to show his domestic critics that he was not damaging Germany’s standing.

After breaking into English to make the remarks above, he was rewarded with warm backing from US President Joe Biden, who told the press conference that Germany was “completely, totally, thoroughly reliable”.

Updated: February 13, 2022, 6:00 AM