Scholz visits Moscow as diplomacy intensifies over Ukraine crisis
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Moscow later today to discuss the Ukraine crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin as the West steps up diplomatic efforts to try to avert war.
Scholz’s one-day trip, following his visit to Kiev on Monday, is part of a frantic effort to stop a possible invasion as an estimated 130,000 Russian troops crowd Ukraine’s borders.
The Chancellor is expected to say the West is open to dialogue on Russia’s security concerns, but will warn that severe sanctions will be imposed if it invades its neighbour.
“We are ready for very significant and effective sanctions in coordination with our allies,” Scholz said in Kiev on Monday.
Mr Scholz’s trip to Moscow follows comments by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden last night, who stressed that there remained “a crucial window for diplomacy” and “for Russia to give up his threats to Ukraine”.
In a call on Monday evening, the two leaders agreed that Western allies must remain “united in the face of Russian threats” and warned of a “significant set of sanctions” if Russia invades Ukraine.
Russia denies plans to invade, accusing the West of “hysteria”. However, Moscow has said it may take unspecified “military-technical” measures unless a series of demands are met, including barring Kiev from joining the NATO alliance.
In new developments on Tuesday, some troops in Russian military districts adjacent to Ukraine are returning to their bases after completing drills, its Defense Ministry said, a move that could defuse friction between Moscow and the West.
Russia indicated on Monday that it was ready to continue discussions with Western governments to ease tensions, while a Ukrainian official said Kiev was ready to make “many concessions” to Moscow.
Mr Scholz’s visit to the Kremlin today could prove influential as Germany is Russia’s biggest trading partner in Europe and also the biggest consumer of its natural gas.
However, Europe’s dependence on gas imports from Russia could limit the German leader’s room for manoeuvre.
Mr Scholz signaled last month that ‘everything will have to be discussed in the event of a military intervention’ when asked about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is intended to deliver more Russian gas to Western Europe, bypassing Ukraine, a traditional transit country.
But he has not sworn to end Nord Stream 2 or even named in connection with the sanctions, unlike Mr Biden who said last Monday the pipeline would be shut down if Russia invaded.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday called on the country’s people to wave flags and sing the national anthem in unison on Feb. 16, a date some analysts and media predict will be the day Russia could invade.
Ukrainian government officials stressed that Mr. Zelenskiy was not planning an attack on Wednesday, but was responding skeptically to foreign media reports.
“They tell us that February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity,” Mr. Zelenskiy said in a video address to the nation.
“They are trying to scare us by once again setting a date for the start of military action,” he added. “On this day, we will hang our national flags, carry yellow and blue banners and show the world our unity.”
Ukraine’s leader has long said that although he believes Russia is threatening to attack his country, the likelihood of an imminent invasion has been exaggerated by Western allies, responding to Moscow’s efforts to intimidate Ukraine and sow the panic.
Mr Zelenskiy’s office issued a decree calling for all villages and towns in Ukraine to fly the country’s flags on Wednesday and for the whole nation to sing the national anthem at 10 a.m. He also called for higher salaries for soldiers and border guards.
US officials said they did not anticipate an attack ordered by Mr Putin on a specific day, but again warned it could happen at any time.
It comes as new commercial satellite images show a flurry of Russian military activity in several locations near Ukraine, according to a private US company that released the images.
Maxar Technologies, which has been tracking the buildup of Russian forces for weeks, said Tuesday that images taken on Sunday and Monday captured significant new activity in Belarus, annexed Crimea and western Russia.
The company highlighted the arrival of several large troop and attack helicopter deployments as well as further deployments of ground attack aircraft and fighter-bombers to forward locations.
The footage also captured the departure of several ground forces units from existing garrisons as well as other combat units seen in convoy formation, Maxar said.
The images could not be independently verified by Reuters.
Additional reports by agencies