The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has played down splits within the Western alliance on how to respond to the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine at a press conference with his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz.
Earlier, he had called for European states to “conduct their own dialogue” with Russia rather than rely on US-led diplomatic efforts. In a speech to the European Parliament last week, Macron said that the EU needed to propose “a new order of security and stability” on the European continent within weeks. The new arrangement, he said, could be sent to Nato once agreed – and then serve as a basis for negotiations with Russia.
Macron’s call is indicative of divisions within Nato on how to view and respond to Russian threats. On one side, British and American intelligence believe that a Russian invasion could happen at any time. The US and UK have issued unusual warnings that Russia may be imminently preparing to topple the Ukrainian government and issue a pro-Moscow leader.
Yet Germany and France still have doubts. “There is still a discrepancy between American and European views on the imminence of an attack,” said Tara Varma, the head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
All sides are looking at the same troop movements but the French remain less convinced than the British and Americans that an invasion could happen at any time. The Russians have not, so far, put in place certain key elements, such as fuel supply lines, a French government source told Le Monde.
Even Ukrainians have expressed a degree of scepticism. Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, this week told his country’s parliament that “as of today, there are no grounds to believe” that an invasion is imminent, noting that Russian forces have so far not formed a battle group ahead of an assault.
Indeed, Valeriy Shiryayev, the defence columnist for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, pointed out this week that the very public way in which the Russian army is building up its forces on Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders is not accompanied by the personnel required to operate them. The only people travelling with the westbound trains carrying tanks and anti-aircraft guns are logistics teams, he noted.
Russian train loaded with T-72 tanks in Chelyabinsk Oblast on the way to the border area with Ukraine today. pic.twitter.com/sW6Su7mDai— WorldOnAlert (@worldonalert) January 21, 2022
“This is how our military supports the efforts of diplomats preparing to continue negotiations with the US and Nato,” Shiryayev wrote. The Kremlin is making no effort to conceal the deployments because the whole point is visibility, including on social media and satellite imagery, he argued.
Nato allies remain unanimous that Russia’s demands, including a ban on Ukraine joining the alliance and a withdrawal of troops from the countries that joined Nato after 1997, are non-starters. But they have not reached firm agreement on the sanctions to be slapped on Russia in retaliation for an invasion.
Europe is much more economically dependent on Russia than the US. Russian gas is crucial for heating and electricity generation in many European countries, representing potential leverage for Moscow. This week, the US said it was finalising plans to replace Europe’s gas supply if Moscow cut off exports of fuel, but questions remain about whether any alternative source could supply the volumes needed.
The vexed question of Europe’s energy supply is just one of the questions splitting the Nato alliance as it waits for Putin’s next move.
[See also: How Europe is hooked on Russian gas]