Ukraine: World leaders in talks as Russian invasion fears mount

International efforts to defuse the stand-off over Ukraine have intensified, with French President Emmanuel Macron holding talks in Moscow and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Washington to co-ordinate policies as fears of a Russian invasion mounted.

The concentration of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops near Ukraine has fuelled Western worries that it heralds a possible invasion, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan warning on Sunday that Russia could invade Ukraine "any day", triggering a conflict that would come at an "enormous human cost".

Russia has denied any plans to attack its neighbour, but is urging the US and its allies to bar Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations from joining Nato, halt weapons deployments there and roll back Nato forces from eastern Europe. Washington and Nato have rejected the demands.

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Mr Macron called for de-escalation as he sat down for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to French President Emmanuel Macron during their meeting in the Kremlin

"Dialogue is necessary because that's the only thing that will help, in my view, to build a context of a security and stability on the European continent," Mr Macron said, calling the discussion a possible first step towards de-escalation.

"I'm happy to have this opportunity to have a deep discussion on all these issues... and to start building an effective response," he added.

Mr Putin, in turn, hailed France's role in shaping European security and noted that their talks came on a day when the countries signed a friendship treaty 30 years ago.

"I realise that we share concern about what's going on in Europe in the security sphere," Mr Putin told Mr Macron, adding that he appreciates his efforts to help ensure "an equal security in Europe" and broker a settlement to the Ukrainian crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) in Moscow

Mr Macron, who heads to Ukraine on Tuesday, spoke by phone on Sunday with US President Joe Biden on "ongoing diplomatic and deterrence efforts", according to the White House.

Before the meeting, Mr Macron said: "I don't believe in spontaneous miracles."

He added: "The security and sovereignty of Ukraine or any other European state cannot be a subject for compromise, while it is also legitimate for Russia to pose the question of its own security."

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Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described the visit as "very important", but sought to temper expectations, saying "the situation is too complex to expect a decisive breakthrough after just one meeting".

A Ukrainian serviceman watches Anna Pylypivna, one of the few residents who did not leave the frontline village of Novooleksandrivka, eastern Ukraine, handle firewood

He noted that "the atmosphere has remained tense", adding that the US and its allies have continued to ignore Moscow's security demands.

Continuing the high-level diplomacy, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to meet with Mr Biden on Monday for talks expected to focus on the Ukrainian stand-off.

Mr Scholz is set to travel to Kyiv and Moscow on February 14 and 15.

Mr Scholz has said that Moscow would pay a "high price" in the event of an attack, but his government has faced criticism over its refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, bolster its troop presence in eastern Europe or spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia if it invades.

German defence minister Christine Lambrecht said on Monday it will add up to 350 troops within a few days to about 500 already a part of a Nato battlegroup in Lithuania.

"With this, we are strengthening our contribution to forces on Nato's eastern flank and sending a very clear signal of unity to our allies," she said.

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Britain said it was sending 350 troops to Poland to bolster Nato forces, joining 100 Royal Engineers already there.

Mr Biden has ordered additional US troops to be deployed to Poland, Romania and Germany, and a few dozen elite US troops and equipment were seen landing on Sunday in south-eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine, with hundreds more infantry troops of the 82nd Airborne Division set to arrive.

In 2015, France and Germany helped broker a peace deal for eastern Ukraine in a bid to end the hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists that erupted the previous year following the Russian annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The agreement signed in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, helped stop large-scale fighting, but efforts at a political settlement have stalled and frequent skirmishes have continued along the tense line of contact in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland called Donbas.

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany last met in Paris in December 2019 in the so-called Normandy format summit, but they failed to resolve main conflicting issues.

Amid the tensions over the Russian military build-up, presidential advisers from the four countries held talks in Paris on January 26, but they did not make any visible progress and agreed to meet again in Berlin in two weeks.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has pushed for another four-way Normandy summit, but the Kremlin said a meeting of leaders would only make sense if the parties agree on the next steps to give a special status to the rebel east.

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Mr Putin and his officials have urged France, Germany and other Western allies to encourage Ukraine to fulfil its obligations under the 2015 agreement, which envisaged a broad autonomy for the rebel east and a sweeping amnesty for the separatists.

The agreement stipulated that only after those conditions are met would Ukraine be able to restore control of its border with Russia in rebel regions.

The Minsk deal was seen as a betrayal of national interests by many in Ukraine and its implementation has stalled.

Amid the latest tensions, Ukrainian authorities have strongly warned the West against pressuring Ukraine to implement the agreement.

Last week, Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, told The Associated Press that an attempt by Ukraine to fulfil the Minsk deal could trigger internal unrest that would play into Moscow's hands.

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba noted that Moscow wants the rebel regions reintegrated into Ukraine in order to use them to effectively block the country's pro-Western aspirations, vowing that "this is not going to happen".