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Germany calls for European-led talks to defuse Ukraine tensions

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is seeking to revive the four-nation “Normandy” format to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine, as she visited Kyiv en route to Moscow to push for European-led negotiations.

The EU, while trying to prevent the possibility of a full-blown Russian invasion, was sidelined from security talks last week between Russia and the US, Nato and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Moscow wrote off the talks as a “dead end”.

Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, said on Monday they were united in pushing to revive the “Normandy” peace talks format between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.

The format was established to support implementation of the 2015 Minsk agreements brokered by Germany and France, which aimed to end the proxy separatist war that erupted in Ukraine’s Donbas region after Moscow annexed the Crimea in 2014.

“Now is the moment to use . . . formats such as Normandy. That way we can sit together with Ukraine and Russia at one table to de-escalate this really difficult situation,” Baerbock said.

Baerbock warned Russia would pay a “high price” should it attack, and said she was in Kyiv to make it “clear that we are not discussing Ukraine without Ukraine”.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said US claims that Moscow was planning a “false flag” operation as a pretext to invade Ukraine were “disinformation” but vowed that the Kremlin would “defend the security of the country” if the west did not meet its security demands.

Amid the simmering tensions, Belarus on Monday also said it would soon hold joint military exercises with Russia near the Ukraine border, and that Russian forces had already begun arriving in the country ahead of the drills.

President Alexander Lukashenko said the exercises, which will be called Allied Resolve, would take place in February on Belarus’s western flank, which borders the EU, and its southern border, which abuts Ukraine.

“Today we see what we need in the western and southern region . . . to conduct solid exercises,” he said in a meeting with top military officials, according to the state press agency, Belta.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian foreign minister Kuleba said he was grateful to Germany for its efforts to return Russia and other parties to the negotiating table.

Kuleba said Baerbock and France’s foreign minister would “soon” make another visit to Ukraine during which the three sides would “in detail discuss the prospects of holding Normandy format talks at the level of foreign ministers”, hoping Russia would agree to further negotiations.

But he cautioned that Russia had been “blocking” such efforts.

“All that we need to receive is the readiness of Russia in an honest fashion to work in the Normandy format, and in the tripartite contact group,” Kuleba said. The tripartite contact group, which was founded in 2014 and sought to resolve the Donbas conflict diplomatically, included Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE.

In Moscow, the foreign ministry released a lengthy statement previewing Baerbock’s visit on Tuesday that accused Germany of “acquiescing to the Kyiv regime’s open sabotage” of the Minsk agreement and called its statement that Russia was a party to the conflict “unacceptable”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last week that “hints” about a possible Normandy format heads of state meeting “had not gone away” but said Russia had “no understanding” about when one would take place.

Lavrov claimed that Ukraine was “under the thumb” of the US, which he said had the responsibility to “finally make Kyiv fulfil the Minsk agreements” aimed at ending the separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Ukraine claimed it was Moscow that had not met its commitments, a position backed by the US and the EU.

Meanwhile, seven US senators from both of America’s major political parties travelled to Kyiv on Monday to meet Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and other government officials.

Democratic senator Chris Murphy, a member of the delegation, said the lawmakers wanted to send a “bipartisan, unconditional message that the United States, Europe and Ukraine will make sure that Russia is dealt a set of consequential blows to their economy and to their security forces if they were to choose to mount a conventional invasion of Ukraine”.

Despite divisions in Congress, Murphy said he expected lawmakers to rally around President Joe Biden’s “efforts to sanction Russia in the event of a further invasion of Ukraine”.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow and Lauren Fedor in Washington

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