On a visit to Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to hold a Ukraine-Russia summit as EU leaders stepped up outreach to the Kremlin to defuse fears Moscow could invade.
The diplomatic offensive came as Russia accused the United States of ratcheting up “tensions” by sending 1,000 soldiers to Romania and 2,000 to Poland to bolster NATO’s eastern flank.
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As Moscow refuses to pull back more than 100,000 troops from Ukraine’s borders, the leaders of European powerhouses Germany and France said they were eyeing possible visits to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
French President Emmanuel Macron was set to hold his third phone call in a week with Putin later on Thursday and also talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Western powers have been engaged in intense diplomatic efforts – coupled with the threat of sanctions against Putin’s inner circle – to deter any further attack on ex-Soviet Ukraine, despite strenuous denials from Moscow.
Erdogan, who is pursuing his own diplomatic track, reaffirmed at a meeting with Zelenskyy his offer to host a peace summit with Putin.
The Turkish leader is looking to leverage his special relationship with Putin and strong support for Kyiv to set up peace talks.
Zelenskyy thanked him for the efforts and insisted he was “ready to do everything possible in all platforms and in all formats” to bring peace to Ukraine.
Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Erdogan has stepped up as a “mediator between Ukraine and Russia as he believes he can talk freely and frankly” with both Zelenskyy and Putin.
“[Erdogan] says that he doesn’t like to see two neighbours in a conflict, but that as a NATO member, if Russia invades Ukraine, Turkey will do what is necessary to hold the eastern flank of the transatlantic military alliance,” she said.
“But of course, Turkey and Russia have strategic relations and strategic cooperation when it comes to Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh … so Erdogan needs to be very careful while dealing with this issue … as he has some national interests at stake.”
Erdogan’s push for a sit-down has so far been stymied by Kremlin anger about NATO member Turkey supplying combat drones to Kyiv – and the two sides on Thursday signed a new deal aimed at expanding drone production in Ukraine.
Amid the diplomatic flurry, Washington angered Moscow by announcing the new troop deployments to two of NATO’s eastern members.
“As long as [Putin] is acting aggressively, we are going to make sure we reassure our NATO allies in eastern Europe that we’re there,” President Joe Biden said on Wednesday.
The Kremlin urged the US to “stop escalating tensions” after Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko warned the “destructive” move would make it harder for a compromise between the two sides.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stressed the US troop movements were to demonstrate commitment to the NATO alliance, and no US soldiers would be sent to fight in Ukraine.
But that is unlikely to assuage Putin, who has accused the US and NATO of seeking to “contain” Russia by placing troops and strategic arms on its border.
Putin has demanded guarantees that Ukraine will not join NATO and has implicitly threatened the former Soviet state with the massive military buildup.
Russia also wants NATO and the US to foreswear the deployment of missile systems near Russia’s borders and to pull back NATO forces in eastern Europe.
Putin has left the door open to talks, saying he was studying Western proposals set out last month in response to Russia’s demands, and he hoped for a “solution”.
But in a call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, he noted “the unwillingness of NATO to adequately respond to the well-founded Russian concerns”.
The Kremlin also claimed it had China’s support in the standoff – backing that would be demonstrated when Putin meets President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Friday at the opening of the Olympics.
‘Low’ threat level
While the US and the UK have sounded the most strident warnings about a potential Russian attack, there are divisions about how likely it may be.
Kyiv has warned against “panic” as it seeks to protect its economy and some European allies are far more guarded about the prospect of looming war.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov insisted on Thursday “the probability of a significant escalation as of today is considered low” as Kyiv had not seen Moscow move “strike groups” to the border.
In a change of language, the White House said Wednesday it would no longer refer to a Russian invasion of Ukraine as “imminent” – explaining the word implied Putin had already made a decision to attack.
But tensions have been aggravated by plans for joint military exercises between Russia and neighbouring Belarus, where Washington has claimed Moscow is preparing to send 30,000 troops.
Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu held talks with Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko and troop inspections in advance of the joint drills later this month.
Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and has fuelled a simmering separatist conflict in the east of the country since then that has killed more than 13,000.
The Norwegian Refugee Council humanitarian organisation warned any escalation in the conflict risked displacing up to two million people along the front line.