In a call with Putin, France’s Macron pursues a diplomatic solution in Ukraine.
PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron of France and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, spoke by telephone on Sunday and agreed on “the need to prioritize a diplomatic solution to the current crisis” and to secure a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine in the coming hours, according to a statement from Mr. Macron’s office.
The statement added that, “if the conditions are met,” a diplomatic path should allow the organization of “a meeting at the highest level in order to define a new peace and security order in Europe.”
The Kremlin, however, signaled little optimism. In a statement published after the call, it said Mr. Putin repeated his contention that Western countries were pushing Ukraine’s government to a “military solution” of its conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east.
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv insists that it has no plans to launch an offensive against the separatist territories, but separatist leaders over the weekend began an “evacuation” of women and children, claiming that such an offensive was imminent.
After his call with Mr. Putin, Mr. Macron spoke with Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, and praised his “composure” and “determination to prevent escalation.”
More specifically, the French and Russian presidents, who spoke for one hour and 45 minutes, agreed to resume diplomatic work within the Normandy Format talks — a negotiating channel that was created seven years ago by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to resolve the regional conflict in eastern Ukraine. The French and Russian foreign ministers will also meet in the coming days.
The presidents also discussed various ways to quickly de-escalate the security crisis in and around Ukraine.
On Sunday, Belarus’s defense minister announced that Russia’s military deployment in Belarus as part of joint exercises would be extended, fueling fears that they could be used to invade Ukraine. But a senior official in Mr. Macron’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity in keeping with French government practice, said that Mr. Putin told Mr. Macron that “these exercises would not be permanent” and that Russian troops would withdraw from Belarus at some point.
Mr. Macron’s office also said “intense work” would be implemented to enable a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group, a group of officials from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that has tried to facilitate a diplomatic way out of the war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.
The goal of this meeting, expected to be held Monday, is to “obtain a commitment from all the parties involved to a cease-fire” on the front line in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
Mr. Zelensky wrote on Twitter that he informed Mr. Macron during their call “about the current security situation and new provocative shelling.” Mr. Macron’s office said the call was part of his efforts “to maintain ways out of the crisis through dialogue and diplomacy.”
“The risk is high, our concern is strong, but we believe that the resources of diplomacy have not been exhausted,” the senior French official said.
Although the Kremlin said a “search for solutions through diplomatic means” should be intensified, it also “emphasized” that Kyiv is “stubbornly refusing to implement the Minsk agreements and agreements reached in the Normandy Format.”
Mr. Macron’s approach to the crisis so far has been to try to defuse it through intense dialogue with Mr. Putin. Sunday’s call was the fourth conversation between the two leaders regarding tensions on the Ukrainian border since mid-December, including Mr. Macron’s visit to Moscow this month. This approach initially led France not to express excessive alarm at the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces.
But faced with the Russian buildup on the Ukrainian border, France’s stance has shifted slightly in recent days. On Saturday, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French foreign minister, said in a statement that “the acts and the words of Russia do not align” and warned Russia against “any further violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The same day, the French Foreign Ministry updated its recommendations for travelers to Ukraine and urged all French nationals staying there with no compelling reason “to leave the country.” It also advised French citizens to postpone any trip to Ukraine.
Unlike the United States, France has kept open its embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. “We stay in Kyiv,” the French ambassador to Ukraine wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
Anton Troianovski contributed reporting.