Ukraine, Russia hold talks in Paris to ease tensions | Ukraine

Representatives of Ukraine and Russia, along with France and Germany, are set to meet in Paris on Wednesday for the latest diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s top Ukraine official, Dmitry Kozak, will hold talks with Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, along with French and German officials.

Before the meeting, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow was ready to take unspecified “reasonable measures” if its security demands were not met. The United States is expected to provide a written response later this week.

Russia wants assurances that Ukraine and Georgia will never be allowed to join NATO and has called for a withdrawal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, including Romania and Bulgaria, and a return to 1997 deployment levels.

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Joe Biden’s US administration has dismissed calls for a Cold War-style zone of influence for Russia as a non-starter. The White House has put 8,500 troops on high alert for use in NATO countries in Eastern Europe if necessary.

On Tuesday, President Biden said he was considering personal sanctions against Vladimir Putin if Russia invaded Ukraine further, as well as “enormous consequences” that would hurt Russia’s economy.

The Paris talks are taking place in the Normandy format, a forum set up after Russia instigated a separatist conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. So far they have made little progress. Moscow is not ready to involve the EU and the OSCE in negotiations, Lavrov said on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, met in Berlin to coordinate their positions after reports of divisions between the allies.

Macron said he would call Putin on Friday to “clarify” Russia’s position. He said France and Germany would never give up dialogue with Russia, but added: “If there is aggression, there will be retaliation and the cost will be very high.”

Since the fall, Russia has deployed a potential invasion force of more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. It held military drills on Wednesday and moved soldiers and warplanes to Belarus, within striking distance of Ukraine’s capital Kiev, ahead of next month’s drills.

The Interfax news agency quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying it had deployed a paratrooper unit and Su-35 fighter jets to Belarus as part of Allied Resolve exercises.

Separately, Russian artillery forces in their country’s southern Rostov region, which borders Ukraine, were scheduled to practice firing later on Wednesday as part of an inspection of the southern military district’s combat readiness, the Defense Ministry said.

In the far north, Russian warships entered the Barents Sea to practice protecting a key shipping route in the Arctic, the Northern Fleet said. Moscow announced full-scale naval exercises last week.

Talks earlier this month between Russia and the US, NATO and the OSCE ended with no substantive agreement. Moscow has threatened “military-technical” measures if the West does not make concessions.

Ukrainian leaders have called for calm, with Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov telling parliament on Tuesday that an invasion was not imminent. He said the Russians had yet to form a battle group of the kind they needed and “to date there is no reason to believe” that Russia would invade immediately.

“Don’t worry, sleep well,” he said. “You don’t have to pack your bags.”

In a video address, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia was trying to sow panic in Ukraine. Echoing Reznikov, he said it had not amassed enough troops for a full-scale offensive, but made it clear that this did not mean it could not do so later.

“The number of Russian troops that have gathered along the Ukrainian border and in the occupied territories of Ukraine is large. It poses a direct threat to Ukraine. However, this number is currently not enough for a full-scale offensive against Ukraine along the entire Ukrainian border,” Kuleba said.

Ukraine’s foreign ministry has expressed anger at the decision by the US and UK this week to withdraw non-essential staff from their embassies in Kyiv. The move was “overcautious and premature,” officials said.

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