KYIV — French officials said Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed to not launching any new “military initiatives” near Ukraine, a sign they said suggests Putin is moving towards de-escalating the crisis around the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said Putin made the commitment during more than five hours of talks between the two leaders on Monday night in Moscow. The French officials said Putin had also promised that thousands of Russian troops massed in neighboring Belarus to the north of Ukraine would leave after exercises end there this month.
It “makes it possible to consider de-escalation,” the officials said in a briefing note sent to journalists.
If true, the promise could be an important sign Putin may be closer to taking Western diplomatic offers as a road out of the crisis, where the massing of tens of thousands of Russian troops near Ukraine has sparked fears of invasion.
The Kremlin on Tuesday downplayed the French officials comments, denying that any deal had been reached.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Financial Times, which first reported the French claims, had “simply written incorrectly.”
Peskov said it was not possible for Putin and Macron to reach a deal since France was not the leader of NATO, which would need to accept any agreements.
But in reality the French officials had not said a deal was reached, just that Putin had promised not to undertake new military initiatives and to initiate a “broader dialogue” that would need to include the rest of NATO countries.
Peskov also confirmed the promise Russian troops will leave Belarus once the joint exercises there end on Feb. 20.
“No one has ever said that Russian troops will remain on the territory of Belarus, that has never been a question,” Peskov told reporters. “On the conclusion of these exercises the troops will return to their place of permanent deployment.”
Russia has been pouring trainloads of troops into Belarus amid its broader build up near Ukraine, alarming Western countries which fear they could be used as a cover for an attack. But Moscow and Minsk both insist the troops are there just for war games.
Putin and Macron’s marathon talks in the Kremlin Monday had ended with a glimmer of hope the Russian leader is ready to accept diplomacy. Putin afterwards told a press conference that Macron had brought “a range of ideas,” which he said it was too early to talk about publicly, but that Putin said he considered “possible as the basis for our next steps.”
It was not clear what those ideas were. But French officials afterwards said Putin and Macron had agreed to “the initiation of a broader dialogue” on three key points: first, Russia’s military posture and second, the long-running ‘Normandy Format’ negotiations aimed at ending the conflict in Ukraine between government and Russian-backed separatists in the east. Third, the “opening of a dialogue on strategic issues,” a phrase that refers to troop and weapon deployments, and wider questions of NATO’s relationship with Moscow.
Macron flew to Kyiv on Tuesday to meet with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, where he is expected to bring some of the ideas Putin referred to. Putin on Monday night told Macron, “Let’s see” how that meeting went, saying he and Macron had agreed to speak again after.
While massing troops near Ukraine, the Kremlin has demanded the United States and NATO give binding guarantees that Ukraine will never join the alliance and that NATO will pull back its infrastructure from eastern European countries that joined after the Cold War.
The U.S. and NATO countries, including France, have rejected those as non-starters, but have offered to engage with the Kremlin on more modest security issues, including limits on missile deployments and troop exercises.
Macron in front of Putin again affirmed NATO’s so-called “Open Doors” policy, calling it “existential.” Any diplomatic breakthrough would either have to find a creative way of reassuring the Kremlin on its main demands or for Putin to move back from them.
Putin with Macron had said there were “some thing possible to talk about” in written responses the U.S. and NATO have sent to Russia’s demands, referring to the more modest offers on missile deployments and other military issues. But he referred to them as “secondary.”
The Kremlin on Tuesday lowered hopes around Macron’s efforts, saying “for now, of course we can’t say we sense any real path to a resolution.”
Peskov said Russia didn’t see “readiness for now” from Western countries to pay attention to its main concerns on NATO.
“The president emphasised this yesterday that, to our regret, in the answers that we received from Washington and NATO there are grains of rationality, but they unfortunately have a secondary character,” Peskov said Tuesday. “And on the fundamental issues we, unfortunately haven’t received an answer. And so this issue remains open in the full sense of that word and remains for us the most important.”