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Western unity is key to confronting the Kremlin

US secretary of state Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on Friday for what may prove last-ditch talks to avert new military action by Moscow against Ukraine. Far from de-escalating as Washington has urged, Russia has been moving troops into Belarus and amphibious assault squadrons towards the Black Sea, ostensibly for “drills”. With the west having signalled it will not go to war over Ukraine with a nuclear-armed Russia, it is imperative Blinken delivers a united western message: that continued diplomatic engagement is worthwhile for Moscow — but that if it chooses a military option, the economic cost imposed by western sanctions will be punitive.

That makes it all the more unfortunate that in the immediate run-up to the talks two of the most senior western leaders have given an impression of division. At the European parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, French president Emmanuel Macron called for EU states to hold their own dialogue with Moscow, and for a “European proposal” to build a new “security and stability” order in the next few weeks.

Having prompted alarm in Brussels, the Elysée Palace said later that France fully supported US-led negotiating efforts; officials said Macron’s call was intended to strengthen, not undermine, Nato unity. The French leader has long suggested that Europeans should take more responsibility for their own defence and security. He made a less well-advised push in 2019 for a European “reset” with Russia. To repeat, in essence, a similar call now — catching western allies unaware — is poorly timed. Not only did Macron’s previous outreach to Moscow discomfit Germany and central European EU members, it made no inroads with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

President Joe Biden compounded things hours later with unguarded comments during a press conference. Acknowledging that Russia might launch only a partial invasion of Ukraine, the president noted that “there are differences in Nato as to what countries are willing to do” in response. There may arguably be some merit in attempting to steer Russia towards less aggressive options by hinting at a sliding scale of retaliatory sanctions. There is none, however, in openly telegraphing splits in the alliance, in the middle of high-stakes diplomacy.

Managing a noisy alliance of democracies spanning the Atlantic and the European continent is an arduous task. Yet unity of words and action is crucial if the west is to deter Moscow from further aggression against Ukraine, or respond effectively if it happens. Putin — who faces no real institutional constraints at home on his ability to use force as he chooses — is adept at dividing western counterparts. He should be given no opening to do so. What is said publicly, and how, and what is left for diplomatic and backchannel contacts must be chosen with the utmost care.

Much as Macron aspires to a European vision for a new security order, the immediate priority must be agreement between Washington and European capitals on robust sanctions — and defensive military aid to Ukraine — under various scenarios of Russian aggression. This includes “trigger” points if Moscow opts for non-military measures such as cyber attacks. Paris should play a key role by stiffening the resolve of the new Berlin government, which has sent mixed messages over its readiness to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or bar Russia from the Swift interbank messaging system. Only armed with such agreements can Blinken and western negotiators command credibility as they confront their opposite numbers from the Kremlin.

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