German leader reassures embattled Ukraine before Kremlin crisis talks

Russia’s top diplomat says there is ‘always a chance’ for diplomacy to break deadlock

German chancellor Olaf Scholz has assured Kyiv that it could rely on his country's support as he prepared to fly to Moscow to discuss the security crisis around Ukraine, amid signs that Russia has not abandoned diplomacy despite massing forces near its neighbour's territory.

"There are no good reasons for the activities on the Ukrainian border. The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are not negotiable. We expect Russia to take clear steps to resolve the situation," Mr Scholz said beside Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday.

"Our common goal is to prevent an escalation. For this, we are working on all levels very intensively . . . We are ready for serious dialogue with Russia on the issue of European security. Nato and the United States have provided Russia with specific proposals that we support, and now we are waiting for a response from Russia."

The US and several European states have begun withdrawing diplomats from Kyiv and urged their citizens to leave Ukraine, amid warnings from Washington and London that a new, large-scale attack by Russia could be imminent.


US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Monday the country will relocate its embassy in Ukraine from Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, citing the "dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces".

Russia has sent more than 100,000 troops and heavy weapons towards Ukraine while threatening to take "military-technical" steps if the West refuses to bar Ukraine and other countries in eastern Europe from joining Nato, and the alliance does not withdraw forces from existing member states in the region – demands the US and allies have flatly rejected.

"Is there a chance to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues or is it an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process?" Russian president Vladimir Putin asked his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.

“As head of the foreign ministry, I must say there is always a chance,” Mr Lavrov replied. “Our possibilities are far from exhausted; they should not go on endlessly, of course, but at this stage I would propose continuing and intensifying them.”

Nato membership

Ukraine insisted on Monday that it will continue to strive for Nato membership, despite the issue being a major irritant for Russia.

Top Ukrainian officials rejected comments from the country's ambassador to London, Vadym Prystaiko, in which he suggested Kyiv could be "flexible" on its Nato ambitions if "pushed to it" by the threat of a new, bigger attack by Russia.

“We would like Nato membership, which would ensure our security and territorial integrity, and this is also enshrined in Ukrainian legislation,” Mr Zelenskiy said after talks with Mr Scholz.

He said Mr Prystaiko’s words should be taken in the context of growing pressure on Ukraine from some quarters “maybe not to risk it, not to constantly raise this question of future membership of the alliance. Because these risks are linked to Russia’s reaction.”

Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba added: "Ukraine's strategic course on joining Nato remains unchanged. It is enshrined in our constitution and national foreign policy strategy, supported by a growing majority of Ukrainians. It's only up to Ukraine and thirty Nato allies to decide on the issue of membership."

Mr Scholz said in Kyiv he wanted to "make clear during my talks with President Zelensky: Germany stands closely alongside Ukraine and supports it on the European path".

“Should Russia violate the territorial integrity (of Ukraine), we and our partners know what to do,” he added, amid warnings from western powers that they are ready to impose sweeping and severe economic sanctions on Moscow if it launches a new attack on Ukraine.


Mr Putin and his allies insist the forces now grouped near Ukraine – which include tanks, fighter jets, missile systems, warships and electronic warfare equipment – are merely on exercises and are not part of an attack force.

At the same time, Moscow says it is not satisfied with the West’s response to its security demands and claims Ukraine could be used as a staging ground for a US attack on Russia.

Mr Putin and Mr Scholz are expected to discuss the fate of the €9.7 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline to carry Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea, which will bypass eastern Europe, deprive Ukraine of important fuel transit fees and, critics say, make it easier for Moscow to use energy flows as a political weapon against Kyiv.

The US has vowed to ensure that the pipeline never becomes operational if Russia launches a new attack on Ukraine, but Mr Scholz has not publicly stated Berlin’s position on the issue in recent weeks.

He said in Kyiv that “further military aggression against Ukraine will entail serious political, economic and geostrategic consequences for Russia. I will mention this tomorrow in Moscow as well.”

The British government, under heavy pressure at home, is playing a prominent role in western diplomacy around Ukraine and in supplying the country with anti-tank weapons.

"We are on an edge of a precipice but there is still time for President Putin to step back," UK prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted on Monday. "We're urging everybody to engage in dialogue and for the Russian government to avoid what would be a disastrous mistake for Russia."

‘False flag’

The US and Britain have warned that Russia could use a staged “false-flag” operation to justify a bigger invasion of Ukraine, where in 2014 it annexed Crimea and started a proxy war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has now killed 14,000 people.

In recent years, Russia has given passports to more than 600,000 residents of parts of Donbas that are held by Moscow-led militants, while also claiming the right to use force to defend Russian citizens wherever they may be.

Russia denies planning to fabricate any such pretext for a new attack on Ukraine, but on Monday its ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, warned that if "the Ukrainians launch an attack against Russia, you shouldn't be surprised if we counterattack. Or, if they start blatantly killing Russian citizens anywhere – Donbas or wherever."

“We will not invade Ukraine unless we are provoked to do that,” he told the Guardian, mentioning the possibility of a Ukrainian “provocation” in the area.

“What I mean by provocation is that they may stage an incident against the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, provoking them, and then hitting them with all their might, thus provoking Russia to react in order to avoid humanitarian catastrophe on its borders.”

Irish warnings

Meanwhile, Ireland has followed the US, Germany and others in warning citizens to leave Ukraine.The Government has also advised Irish people in Ukraine to register with the embassy in Kyiv.

On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that the number of Irish citizens registered with the embassy in Kyiv has increased to 145 and this number may rise further over the coming days.

"We are urging all Irish citizens in Ukraine to leave immediately, either via commercial flight or over land. We remain in ongoing contact at a senior level with EU partners, as well as the UK and the US, regarding the wider political and security situation in and around Ukraine. Ireland supports all efforts aimed at defusing the current tensions and at finding a diplomatic pathway forward. Ireland is committed to Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. It is urgent that Russia de-escalate, abide by international law and engage constructively in dialogue," Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said.

In common with the embassies of partner states, the Embassy of Ireland in Kyiv will remain open, with a small number of essential staff remaining. That situation will be kept under review.

Any Irish citizen requiring emergency consular assistance should contact the Department of Foreign Affairs at +353 1 408 2000.

Multinational battlegroups

Meanwhile, Nato defence ministers are expected this week to set in motion a plan that could establish four multinational battlegroups in southeastern Europe in response to Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine, three diplomats said.

Allied ministers meeting on Wednesday and Thursday will decide whether to order their military commanders to draw up plans to deploy battlegroups of some 1,000 troops each to Bulgaria and Romania, and possibly to Slovakia and Hungary.

With Nato meeting as the US warned of the threat of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, diplomats told Reuters that ministers are likely to agree to the first step of directing commanders to come up with a detailed plan for the four battlegroups on land.

“There will be a tasking that allows us to escalate but also to de-escalate if Russia pulls back its military,” a senior Nato diplomat said, stressing that any new battlegroups would be on top of recent allied offers by Britain, the US and others of ships and planes to reinforce Nato’s eastern flank.

Nato reinforcements in the Black Sea would show resolve in the strategically important region, and in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia that border Ukraine. Any final decision on deployments would come later on, although both France and Bulgaria have offered to lead the battlegroups in Romania and Bulgaria respectively.

The move would be Nato's biggest shift in force posture since it set up its Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Poland – backed by tanks, air defences and intelligence and surveillance units – in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Any deployments would go against Moscow’s security demands for the alliance to withdraw troops from eastern Europe.

Nato insists the battlegroup format used in the Baltics is not a permanent stationing of troops, rather a “persistent” presence of rotating soldiers to serve as a tripwire for a larger response force should Russia invade Nato territory. – Additional reporting Reuters

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe