Boris Johnson has insisted that Britain will “not flinch” and will continue to offer “unconditional and immovable” support to Nato, amid continued fears that Russia could be preparing to invade Ukraine.
Moscow continues to add military might to its army amassed near the Ukrainian border, following a series of demands to Nato – which were formally rejected last month – including that Ukraine will not be allowed to join the western military alliance.
Echoing comments by defence secretary Ben Wallace on Monday, as he dispatched a further 350 British troops to Poland, the prime minister warned Vladimir Putin that invading Ukraine would backfire and only serve to strengthen Nato.
There could not “be a more compelling argument for the necessity of Nato than the sight of Russian tanks invading a European country once again”, Mr Johnson wrote in The Times, warning the Kremlin “its objectives would not be served by inflicting still greater destruction and bloodshed on Ukraine”.
But following a five-hour dinner meeting in Moscow with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, the Russian president warned that, if Ukraine joins Nato and seeks to retake Crimea – which Russia annexed in 2014 – then European nations “will automatically be drawn into military conflict” with Russia “beyond [their] will”, adding: “There will be no winners.”
As the first western leader hosted in Moscow since tensions intensified late last year, Mr Macron is due to speak to the Russian leader again after a trip to Ukraine tomorrow.
“The next few days will be decisive and will require intensive discussions which we will pursue together,” the French president told reporters after his meal with Mr Putin.
Mr Putin also appeared tentatively positive about the meeting, saying: “A number of his ideas, proposals, which are probably still too early to talk about, I think it is quite possible to make the basis of our further joint steps.”
French media reported that, prior to the meeting, Mr Macron suggested that a “Finlandisation” of Ukraine was “one of the models on the table” – a reference to how Finland maintained its independence from the Soviet Union during the Cold War on the condition that it remained strictly neutral.
Mr Putin also urged Ukraine to comply with the Minsk agreements – brokered by France and Germany in 2015 – which include an aim to end the separatist war by Russian-speakers in the Donbas region, but also contain aspects some experts believe are incompatible with Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign country.
But Mr Macron said the independence of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus – where Russia is conducting military exercises – must be preserved, saying: “Together … I’m sure we will get a result, even if it’s not easy.”
Meanwhile, Mr Putin accused the US and Nato of “bypassing” its demands last month, but said: “I do not think that this is where our dialogue ends. Now we will formulate an answer, our vision, and send it to Washington and Brussels.”
Their comments came shortly after a press conference held in the White House by Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz, the new German chancellor, who appeared to strengthen Berlin’s commitment to derailing the multibillion-pound Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany in the event that Russia invades Ukraine.
The US president told reporters that if Russian troops cross Ukraine’s border, “then there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2”, saying: “We will bring it to an end.”
While Mr Scholz did not use the pipeline’s name, he stressed that US and Germany would “act together jointly” to impose severe sanctions in the event of an invasion, saying: “There won’t be any measures in which we have a different approach.”
Switching to English for emphasis, he added that the US and Germany “will be united”.
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But questions were raised over Mr Scholz’s commitment to the Baltic Sea pipeline threat, after he once again failed to explicitly name Nord Stream 2 as among the economic deterrents on the table in a later interview with CNN, merely repeating his vow to remain aligned with the US.
Mr Scholz told the broadcaster he did not know whether Ukraine’s president Volodymr Zelensky had cancelled a planned meeting on Monday with foreign minister Annalena Baerbock as a result of Germany’s stance on the pipeline, as suggested to CNN by one Kiev source – as opposed to the scheduling error blamed officially.
It came after a batch of the 3,000 American forces pledged by Washington to bolster Nato’s eastern flank arrived in Poland on Sunday.
At a press conference with his Polish counterpart, Mariusz Błaszczak, the UK defence secretary Ben Wallace said the 350 troops also pledged by the UK were being dispatched in the “spirit of solidarity”. Poland is also facing a crisis on its own border with Belarus, whose leader Alexander Lukashenko is an ally of Mr Putin.
Writing in The Times on Monday night, Mr Johnson said Britain was also considering deploying royal air force Typhoon fighters and royal navy warships to protect southeastern Europe.
“British sanctions and other measures will be ready for any renewed Russian attack,” the prime minister said.
Highlighting the confusion over Mr Scholz’s pipeline stance, Mr Johnson also welcomed “Germany’s statement that Nord Stream 2 would be reconsidered in the event of an incursion”, and said his government would ask MPs for new powers to widen potential sanctions on firms linked to the Kremlin.
On Sunday, Labour shadow ministers Rachel Reeves and David Lammy wrote to their opposite numbers in government, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, urging the Tories to return money from donors with links to Russia, alleged to amount to £1.93m since Mr Johnson assumed power in 2019.
Additional reporting by agencies