Russian, Ukrainian officials meet in bid to ease tensions

Russian and Ukrainian delegations met in Paris for talks on Wednesday in a bid to defuse soaring tensions, with France seeking to usher both sides down a “path to de-escalation”.

The high-level meeting, attended by senior diplomats from France and Germany, brings together the four countries in a format that has been used repeatedly since Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

Russia is represented by vice-prime minister Dmitri Kozak and Ukraine by presidential advisor Andriy Yermak, with diplomatic advisors to President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also taking part in the talks that began at 1100 GMT.

France, which floated ideas for a “de-escalation” on Monday and is keen for Europe to try to solve the crisis, is hoping that Russia is prepared to engage in talks at a time when it has massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border.

“It’s very encouraging that the Russians agreed to enter into this diplomatic format again, the only one in which the Russians are stakeholders,” an aide to Macron said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

“This meeting will give us a clear indication of the Russians’ mindset before the call between Emmanuel Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday,” the aide added. Each side is expected to brief the media later in the day.

Separate talks between Russia and the United States have been held in recent weeks to discuss Russian security demands in Europe, including that Ukraine should never become a member of the US-led Nato military alliance.

After discussions last Friday in Geneva, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Washington would give a written response to Russian demands and also floated the idea of a presidential meeting.

The talks in Paris on Wednesday come as Western powers keep up their warnings of massive economic sanctions in the event of a Russian attack on pro-Western Ukraine.

US President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday of personal sanctions on Putin, while the White House says the risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine “remains imminent.” Concerned about the rhetoric in Washington and London, and their decision to withdraw some embassy staff and families in Kiev, an aide to Macron warned on Monday about “creating any ambiguity or creating any additional volatility.” “We want a de-escalation, which means both dialogue and dissuasion,” the aide said on Wednesday.

“Discussions about sanctions with our European and American partners, with institutions, is taking place to ensure that this dissuasion is sufficiently credible, so that the dialogue is credible. They are linked,” the aide added.

“But the sanctions must not lead to retaliation that will boomerang on us and have a cost,” the aide said. “Sanctions are not be-all and end-all of the response.” The US has also been drawing up plans to shore up European gas supply should Russia cut off shipments through its pipelines in response to Western sanctions.

The White House announced Tuesday that Biden would meet with the emir of gas-rich Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on January 31 to discuss, among other issues, “ensuring the stability of global energy supplies.”