German chancellor Scholz meets Putin as Ukraine’s fate in the balance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Moscow Tuesday in search of a diplomatic solution to avoid a war in Ukraine as the West and Russia signalled tentative hopes of an easing in the tense standoff.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the plane to Moscow from Berlin on February 15th.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives at the plane to Moscow from Berlin on February 15th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

His talks with Vladimir Putin are the latest in an intense diplomatic scramble to dissuade the Russian leader from attacking his ex-Soviet neighbour Ukraine.

Putin said on Tuesday he was ready to continue working with the West on security issues to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine.

“We are ready to work further together. We are ready to go down the negotiations track,” Putin told a press conference following talks in Moscow with German Chancellor Scholz.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Putin said that “of course” Russia does not want war. But it “cannot turn a blind eye” to how Washington and NATO “freely interpret” the principle of the indivisibility of security — that no country should strengthen its security at the expense of others.

Ahead of Tuesday’s talks, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that “the situation is particularly dangerous and can escalate at any moment”.

READ ALSO: Germany and France to resume ‘difficult’ Ukraine talks in March

“The responsibility for de-escalation is clearly with Russia, and it is for Moscow to withdraw its troops,” she said in a statement, adding that “we must use all opportunities for dialogue in order to reach a peaceful solution”.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin confirmed a pullback of some forces from Ukraine’s borders but said the move was planned and stressed Russia would continue to move troops across the country as it saw fit.

The Russian leader and his top aides have consistently argued that the current crisis is the result of the United States and western Europe ignoring Moscow’s legitimate security concerns.

Russia, which denies any plan to invade Ukraine, already controls the Crimea territory seized in 2014 and supports separatist forces controlling the Donbas region in the east.

The Kremlin insists NATO must give assurances Ukraine will never be admitted as a member and withdraw from eastern European countries already in
the alliance, effectively carving Europe into spheres of influence. The United States and its European allies reject the demands.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke with the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine on Monday to express his serious concern over the
heightened tensions and insisted “there is no alternative to diplomacy”.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany is in a muddle over Russia – and it only has itself to blame

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said US defence officials still did not believe Moscow had made a final decision on whether to invade Ukraine.

Alarm has also been fuelled by recent Russian military exercises, including with Belarus, where Washington said Moscow had dispatched 30,000 troops for more than a week of drills.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin that some of the drills were “ending” and more would end “in the near future”, signalling a possible easing of the crisis.

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky meanwhile declared Wednesday — the day US officials warn might mark the start of a feared Russian invasion —
national “Unity Day”.

Digging trenches

Ahead of his trip to Moscow, Scholz visited Kyiv on Monday, vowing that Berlin and its Western allies would maintain support for Ukraine’s security and independence and urging Russia to take up “offers of dialogue”.

Germany plays a central role in efforts to mediate in eastern Ukraine, where a gruelling conflict with Russian-backed separatists has claimed more than 14,000 lives.

READ ALSO: Scholz sees ‘progress’ in diplomatic efforts to ease Ukraine crisis

But Berlin’s close business relations with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russian natural gas imports have been a source of lingering concern for Kyiv’s pro-Western leaders and Biden’s team.

Scholz has hedged against unequivocally backing Biden’s pledge to “bring an end” to Russia’s new Nord Stream 2 gas link to Germany.

While waiting for diplomacy to bear fruit, near the front line separating Kyiv-held territory from areas under the control of Moscow-backed insurgents in the east, underprivileged children in the care of church groups were helping with war preparations.

“We are digging trenches that Ukrainian soldiers could quickly jump into and defend in case the Russians attack,” Mykhailo Anopa, 15, told AFP.

In Moscow, Russians showed no appetite for war.

“People in the West do not understand that we are one people,” Pavel Kuleshov, a 65-year-old pensioner, told AFP, referring to Russians and Ukrainians. “Nobody wants a civil war.”

A growing number of Western countries are withdrawing staff from their Kyiv embassies and urging their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately, while Washington moved its mission west to Lviv.


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Russian gas transit halt in Ukraine hits key pipeline’s inflow in Germany

A halt on Russian gas flowing through a key transit hub in eastern Ukraine has cut inflows via a key pipeline into Germany by a quarter compared to a day ago, official data showed Wednesday.

Russian gas transit halt in Ukraine hits key pipeline's inflow in Germany

The German government in Berlin however said that overall supplies to Germany were assured, as the affected “volumes are currently being offset by higher flows from Norway and the Netherlands”.

The affected pipeline travels through the Czech Republic and Slovakia and enters Germany via Waidhaus in Bavaria.

Germany is highly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies, with Russian supplies making up 55 percent of its imports before Moscow invaded Ukraine.

Berlin has been battling to cut its reliance since, but has rejected an immediate full embargo on Russian gas.

In its daily energy situation report, it said the current level of its gas stocks was “significantly higher than in the spring of 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2021”.

READ ALSO: What would happen if Germany stopped accepting Russian gas