ladimir Putin must “step back from his current threats” as part of any solution to the Ukraine crisis, Boris Johnson has said, following suggestions the Russian leader is open to last-ditch peace talks.
The Prime Minister said it is a “welcome sign” that a phone call between French leader Emmanuel Macron and Russian president had shown Mr Putin may be “willing to engage in finding a diplomatic solution”.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister and Mr Macron agreed during a discussion on Sunday that the next week would be “crucial” in the bid to prevent an invasion of Ukraine.
The country is currently surrounded on three sides by about 150,000 Russian soldiers, warplanes and equipment, with the West predicting that Moscow is poised to launch an offensive on Kyiv – a battle Mr Johnson has predicted would be “bloody and protracted”.
In a readout of the call between Mr Macron and Mr Putin, the Elysee Palace said the pair agreed to work towards a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine where violence has escalated between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.
French and Russian foreign ministers will meet in Paris to advance a solution to the current tensions, while the two heads of state “made a firm engagement to take all useful actions to avoid escalation, reduce risks and preserve peace”, according to a statement.
The Prime Minister and President Macron agreed next week would be crucial for diplomacy and resolved to stay in close contact
The Prime Minister, who has said a conflict between Kyiv and Moscow would amount to a war on a scale not seen since the Second World War, spoke to Mr Macron after the French president’s dealings with Mr Putin on Sunday.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister noted that President Putin’s commitments to President Macron were a welcome sign that he might still be willing to engage in finding a diplomatic solution.”
The leaders “underscored the need for President Putin to step back from his current threats and withdraw troops from Ukraine’s border”, Downing Street added.
Before the call, the Conservative Party leader had conceded that a joint US-UK sanction threat to prevent Russian state-linked firms from trading in pounds and dollars in the event of an incursion – a move he predicted would hit the Kremlin “very hard” – may “not be enough on its own” to prevent a conflict.
Western fears about an invasion grew after Russia and Belarus extended joint military exercises beyond the original intention to end them on Sunday.
It is feared the displays are a further indication that Russia, which is also conducting naval drills off the coast of the Black Sea, is gearing up for an offensive.
Shelling in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine increased over the weekend, with the Prime Minister suggesting the activity was part of a Russian plan to invade.
Hundreds of artillery shells exploded along the contact line between the two sides in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and thousands of people were evacuated into Russia in a move some commentators believe is designed by Moscow to paint Kyiv as the aggressor.
There is anxiety that Russia, which also carried out nuclear drills on the weekend, could use the increase in tension as a pretext for an attack.
The Prime Minister told the BBC British intelligence suggested the surge in fighting bore “all the signs” that Mr Putin’s attack plan has “already in some senses begun”.