French President Emmanuel Macron's call for the European Union to pursue its own talks with the Kremlin is raising fears of a split developing in the Western response to the threat of a Russian invasion in Ukraine.
Macron has struggled in the past to convince his EU partners of the need for Europe to take regional security into its own hands and depend less on the United States. His speech to European lawmakers Wednesday, though, in which he called for the bloc to negotiate its own security and stability pact with the Kremlin, was welcomed by Russian state-owned media.
But some Central European and Baltic leaders said Macron's comments were ill-timed and risk encouraging the Kremlin to try to play the U.S. and EU against each other, and cause a divide as the U.S. calls for Western unity.
Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said he was at a loss to understand what Macron means about coming up with "a new order of security and stability."
"These next few months, rather, seem to call for firm defense of the existing post-1989 order," he tweeted.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Russia could "attack at very short notice." Also, there have been reports that Russia has moved Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to the border, placing them within striking range of Kyiv. Russia has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops along Ukraine's borders, according to Ukrainian intelligence assessments.
Some Russian detachments currently in Belarus, a Russian ally, have been moved closer to the Ukrainian border, according to the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of independent Russian researchers, who say Russian military hardware has been spotted in Belarus's Gomel region, a short distance from Ukraine. Russian officials deny they have any intention to attack Ukraine and that Russian forces are in Belarus for joint military exercises.
In his speech before the European Parliament, Macron said: "It's good for Europe and the U.S. to coordinate, but it is vital that Europe has its own dialogue with Russia." He said Europeans should build a new framework "between us, Europeans, share it with our allies in NATO, and propose it for negotiation to Russia,' he told EU lawmakers.
Additionally, Macron emphasized that borders should be inviolable, and that the EU must not allow Russia to veto Ukraine or any other state from joining NATO, a key Russian demand.
Macron's floating of an EU security pact with Russia is "exactly the wrong thing to do," tweeted Edward Lucas, of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a U.S.-based think tank, and author of the book "The New Cold War."
EU officials say they were blindsided by Macron's call for Europeans to conduct their own dialogue with the Kremlin that's distinct from the United States. Western diplomats said the French leader had not consulted other national leaders before the speech. On Thursday, senior EU officials sought to reassure Washington.
Macron aides also scrambled to walk back some of the French leader's comments, with one saying Paris is very much in favor of close coordination with the U.S. And he said Macron's call for a new security framework would help reinforce "the unity of the NATO alliance."
The EU has not been directly involved in the most substantive talks with the Kremlin over Ukraine and a series of other Russian demands, including an end to NATO enlargement and a rollback of any NATO military presence in the former Communist states of central Europe that have joined the Western alliance.
Russian officials held meetings last week with the U.S. and with NATO, though EU representatives participated in a meeting of the 57 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Twenty-one of the EU's 27 members also are NATO members.
Asked whether the European Commission backed Macron's proposal for separate talks with Russia, a spokesperson said the EU was formulating is strategy "within the framework of the ongoing contacts and coordination, both within the EU and between the EU and the transatlantic partners such as the U.S., Canada, NATO and the OSCE."
EU and NATO allies have been unanimous in rejecting Russian demands for Ukraine never to join the Western alliance, but there have been signs of divisions among them about how the West should seek to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine and what steps to take if Russia does so.
Current and former Western diplomats have told VOA that while there's broad agreement among Western powers about sanctioning Russia in the event of a military incursion, there is not yet a final deal on the details.
And there have been disagreements between NATO allies on re-arming Ukraine, with Baltic NATO allies Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia pushing for weeks to be allowed to transfer American-made lethal weapons, including anti-armor and ground-to-air missiles, to Ukraine. Midweek they received a go-ahead from the U.S. State Department. But Germany is opposed to large arms transfers to Ukraine, fearing it risks escalating the East-West confrontation.
U.S. President Joe Biden hinted Wednesday at the challenge of keeping all the NATO allies united. Biden reiterated warnings that Russia would face devastating Western sanctions, if an attack went ahead. But at a press conference in Washington, he also said: "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion, and we [in NATO] end up fighting about what we should do, not do."
Ukrainian officials reacted angrily to Biden's comments, saying they fear the U.S. leader was inadvertently giving Russian leader Vladimir Putin the green light to mount an incursion short of a full-scale invasion. Ukrainian officials said they were surprised Biden distinguished between incursion and invasion.
Ukraine's foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told the Wall Street Journal: "Speaking of minor and full incursions or full invasion, you cannot be half-aggressive. You're either aggressive or you're not aggressive." He added: "We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact."
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a clarification amid the Ukrainian backlash, saying, "President Biden has been clear with the Russian President: If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that's a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies."
At a joint press conference in Berlin on Thursday, neither Secretary Blinken nor his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock directly addressed Macron's comments. Both foreign ministers emphasized the intensity of consultations between all Western allies
"The coordination and consultation amongst us allies couldn't be more intensive than it is," said Baerbock.
Blinken added: "All of these engagements are part of wide-ranging, ongoing consultations with our European allies and partners - more than a hundred in recent weeks alone, including with Ukraine, NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, the Bucharest Nine, as well as many bilateral conversations with individual countries - to ensure that we are speaking and acting together with one voice when it comes to Russia."