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MUNICH — The Kremlin on Sunday used a telephone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron to broadcast an array of provocative, unproven allegations of belligerence by Ukraine and NATO countries, insisting the West was “pushing Kyiv towards a military solution to the so-called Donbass problem.”
Moscow’s unfounded claims, put forward while Russia has mobilized more than 100,000 troops and sophisticated weapons on the Ukrainian border, sharply raised the danger that Putin might use fabricated charges to justify a military attack.
U.S. President Joe Biden has said publicly that he believes Putin has decided to undertake a widescale invasion — a point made again on Sunday by senior U.S. administration officials who warned that Russia is on the “brink” of an invasion.
The Kremlin, in its summary of Sunday’s call, said Putin had referred to an evacuation of civilians currently underway in the occupied areas of Donbass — which even some residents there have called unjustified. Separatist leaders, in urging civilians to flee, had claimed that an attack by the Ukrainian military was imminent.
In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has repeatedly said his troops are under orders to show maximum restraint and not create the pretext for a Russian invasion.
“Serious concern was expressed over the sharp deterioration of the situation on the line of contact in the Donbass,” the Kremlin said in its summary of the call. “The president of Russia noted that the reason for the escalation is the provocations of the Ukrainian security forces. Attention is drawn to the ongoing pumping by the NATO countries of Ukraine of modern weapons and ammunition, which is pushing Kyiv towards a military solution to the so-called Donbass problem.
“As a result,” the Kremlin statement added, “civilians in the [separatist areas], who have to evacuate to Russia to escape the intensifying shelling, suffer.”
The Kremlin readout differed sharply in tone and substance from an initial assessment issued by the French government. And in a follow-up briefing for reporters, an Elysée official conceded that the two presidents disagreed on the state of play.
Putin and Macron “acknowledged their differences of interpretation,” the official said. “Mr. Putin puts on Ukraine the responsibility of the deadlock in the negotiations with the separatists, while the [French] president insists on the respect of the Minsk agreements such as they were signed at the time by Russia.”
Given the contentiousness of the situation, and Russia’s reputation for using disinformation as part of its toolkit, it was unclear why the Elysée had not insisted on written joint statements by the two presidents following their calls and meetings to avoid misunderstandings or even flat-out contradictions.
There were similar contradictions following a meeting between Macron and Putin at the Kremlin earlier this month, with Paris initially asserting that certain deals had been reached, and the Kremlin denying that was the case.
On Sunday, the Elysée said Putin and Macron had agreed that on Monday there should be a quickly-organized meeting of the so-called Trilateral Contact Group — made up of representatives of Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The French president’s office said the trilateral group “will work on the re-establishment of the ceasefire” along the line of contact between Russian-backed separatists in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Ukrainian armed forces. There has been a sharp increase in shelling on the contact line in recent days.
Macron and Putin also discussed Russia’s commitment to withdrawing troops from Belarus after military exercises that ended Sunday. Belarus announced that Russian military forces would not immediately return home following the conclusions of the drills. Macron, after his recent visit to Moscow, had said that Putin assured him that the troops would leave after the exercises.
The Elysée claimed that during the Sunday call with Macron, Putin again made this promise — even though it was already contradicted by the statement by Belarusian authorities and Russia made no mention of any such agreement.
“Putin reiterated to President Macron his intention to withdraw these troops from Belarus at the end of the ongoing exercises.” the Elysée official said. “So we will have to verify all this. It will take some time but I note that the statements of the Belarusian authorities do not coincide with the words of President Putin.”
According to the French summary, Putin agreed to “the resumption of work within the framework of the Normandy format on the basis of the exchanges and proposals made by Ukraine in recent days; intense work to enable a meeting of the trilateral contact group to be held in the next few hours with the aim of obtaining from all the stakeholders a commitment to a ceasefire on the line of contact; the need to favor a diplomatic solution to the current crisis and to do everything to achieve it.”
In the coming days, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in a bid to advance the agreed-upon points, the Elysée said. “We believe that the resources of diplomacy are not exhausted,” the Elysée said.
The Kremlin, however, didn’t confirm any specific commitments. Instead, it pushed the line that only Kyiv was to blame for the failure to settle the nearly eight-year-long war in Donbass, in which Russia has financed and armed separatist forces and effectively assumed control of the makeshift governmental administrations of the occupied territories.
Allied leaders have been in constant communication over the Russian threat, and Macron was expected to speak later Sunday with his counterparts, the Elysée said.
The Macron-Putin phone call came on the closing day of the annual Munich Security Conference, which was dominated by speculation about a Russian invasion and pervasive fears of the first large-scale war on the European continent in the 21st century.
“We believe that Putin has made his decision. Period,” U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters just before leaving Munich for Washington.
Her comments chimed with remarks by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who said that Russia is planning the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
“People need to understand the sheer cost in human life that could entail,” he told the BBC in an interview broadcast Sunday.
European Council President Charles Michel said Sunday that “if there is further military aggression, we will react with massive sanctions. The cost for Russia must be, and will be, severe.” But he added: “Let’s be frank — it will also be a cost for us, in Europe.
Questioned on the European Union’s defense capabilities and commitment to Ukraine, top EU diplomat Josep Borrell insisted the bloc has been Ukraine’s strongest partner and had already provided €17 billion in aid in exchange for reforms. The relationship is “truly comprehensive,” Borrell said. “There’s no country where we spend more money and have stronger ties in all areas.”
European foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels on Monday, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba set to brief ministers.