Putin, Scholz begin talks in Moscow over Ukraine security

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's one-day trip is part of frantic Western diplomacy to try to stop a potential attack. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (AFP/REUTERS) - Talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz began in Moscow on Tuesday (Feb 15), the latest meeting in weeks of diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions over Ukraine. 

“Unfortunately, we will devote a significant portion of our time to issues related to the situation in Europe and to security”, including Ukraine, Putin said during opening remarks at the beginning of the talks.

Scholz’s meeting with Putin comes a day after he travelled to Kyiv to shore up support for Ukraine during talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“It’s clear that we now have to talk about the difficult situation regarding security in Europe,” the German leader said at the onset of talks with Putin.

The Russian president said that energy issues would also be on the agenda.

Scholz's trip to Moscow carries with it a warning of far-reaching sanctions if it attacks Ukraine.

The one-day trip is part of frantic Western diplomacy to try to stop a potential attack as more than 100,000 Russian troops mass on Ukraine's borders.

The chancellor had said earlier he will hammer home the message from the West that they are open to dialogue about Russia's security concerns but will impose sanctions if it invades Ukraine.

Warnings of sanctions could hit home harder coming from Germany, Russia's number one trade partner in Europe and the biggest consumer of Russian natural gas - although that could also limit Scholz's room for manoeuvre.

He signalled last month "everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention" when asked about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany, which is intended to bring more Russian gas to Western Europe, bypassing traditional transit country Ukraine.

But he has not vowed to end Nord Stream 2 or even named it in connection with sanctions. That is in contrast to US President Joe Biden, who said last Monday the pipeline would be halted if Russia invaded. 

Russia denies planning to invade, accusing the West, which has sent a flurry of officials to Moscow and Kyiv, of hysteria.

The Kremlin earlier on Tuesday confirmed a pullback of some Russian 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.

Coalition disagreements

Scholz, who took office in December, has faced criticism for his low profile during the crisis, contrasting with Angela Merkel's leadership during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the lead in Europe, visiting Moscow a week ago and telephoning Putin regularly.

Merkel and Putin were able to speak in one another's native tongues. She became his key interlocutor in Europe during her 16 years in power. This will be Scholz's first meeting with Putin as chancellor, although he has met him in previous senior roles.

"Merkel had this special relationship with Putin - I think he respected her - and they had a long time to build their relationship," said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council of Foreign Relations. "For Scholz, it will be trickier."

Scholz's government has been accused of giving mixed signals on the crisis, with disagreements among the three parties making up the coalition as well as within his ruling Social Democrats (SPD).

Junior coalition party the Greens, which holds the foreign ministry, wants to axe Nord Stream 2. Former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who took a job at Russian energy giant Gazprom after leaving office in 2005, continues to lobby for it.

The SPD's traditional desire for closer engagement with Russia could be an asset in the talks with Putin, said Puglierin. "But Scholz cannot afford to be the weak link in the Western alliance," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday suggested to Putin that Moscow continue along the diplomatic path in its efforts to extract security guarantees from the West.

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