Paris talks seek to defuse growing Russia-Ukraine tensions

Paris (AFP) –

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French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to hold talks Friday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a show of support for his pro-Western government after a Russian military build-up on its eastern borders raised fears of an invasion.

The tensions have escalated six years after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea by Moscow and declaration of breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists prompted the worst decline in ties between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Macron received Zelensky for lunch in Paris and both men were to talk later with Chancellor Angela Merkel by video link.

"Ukraine's sovereignty is under threat," said a French presidential official, who asked not to be named. "All our work is aimed at avoiding an escalation and defusing tensions."

Zelensky's meeting with the leaders of France and Germany, who have been mediators in the conflict since 2015 and have been overseeing a fragile ceasefire, comes as Ukraine accuses Russia of threatening to destroy it.

"The red line of Ukraine is the state border. If Russia crosses the red line, then it will have to suffer," Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week.

But in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged Merkel and Macron to tell Kiev to "decisively stop any provocative actions on the contact line and emphasise the need for an unconditional observance of the ceasefire regime".

- 'Same family' -

In recent weeks Moscow has amassed tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine's northern and eastern borders, as well as in annexed Crimea.

A fresh bout of clashes in eastern Ukraine effectively ended a ceasefire agreed last July that ushered in a period of relative calm to the conflict.

The fighting, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives, has seen 28 Ukrainian soldiers killed since the start of the year compared to 50 in all of 2020.

Russia's defence ministry said the troops are merely responding to "threatening" actions by the NATO alliance and participating in military drills.

Ukraine, where a pro-Kremlin president was ousted in a popular uprising in 2014, has made clear its ambition to join NATO, in statements that have riled the Kremlin.

"We cannot stay indefinitely in the EU and NATO waiting room," Zelensky told French daily Le Figaro in an interview ahead of his visit.

"If we belong to the same family, we must live together. We cannot go out together forever, like eternal fiances, we must legalise our relations."

France's Europe Minister Clement Beaune however emphasised that supporting Ukraine was not the same as giving it EU membership, "which is not a serious prospect".

- 'Alter stakes' -

The situation in eastern Ukraine comes against the background of a new spike in tensions between Moscow and Washington as new US President Joe Biden seeks a tougher line against Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

The US on Thursday announced sanctions and the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in retaliation for what the White House says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.

Biden on Wednesday had proposed a summit with Putin -- an offer that Russia is still considering. Finland has said it is prepared to host such a meeting.

Meanwhile both Europe and the United States have expressed disgust over the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny in a prison camp after he returned to Russia from Germany, after what the West says was an attempted assassination using the Russian nerve agent Novichok.

Biden raised hackles in Russia last month by agreeing with a description of Putin as a "killer".

Some observers have cast the escalation as an attempt by both Moscow and Kiev to test Biden to see how far he is willing to go to defend Washington's ally and confront Russia.

Zelensky, a former comic actor elected in 2019 on the back of promises to win a fair peace, is under immense pressure from nationalists at home to take a tough line against Russia.

"There is little doubt that Russia is pulling together an assault force capable of invading Ukraine," Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a research note.