French president Emmanuel Macron tells Putin: We will defend Ukraine

Emmanuel Macron has told Vladimir Putin that France is ready to “defend the territorial integrity of Ukraine” as fears grow of an imminent Russian invasion.

he comments by the French president mark the hardest line a Western leader has taken in response to a “significant” Russian military build-up near the Ukrainian border.

Mr Macron made the warning during a phone conversation with Mr Putin yesterday evening, in which the pair also discussed the escalating migrant crisis on the frontier between Poland and Belarus.

The comments are particularly notable as Ukraine is not a member of Nato, and Mr Putin may have been weighing whether Europe and the US would come to Kyiv’s aid in the event of an attack.

Meanwhile, thousands of migrants remain camped out at the Polish border with Belarus for a second week, in what Warsaw says is an orchestrated crisis by Mr Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.

The twin crises are part of a wider Kremlin attempt to “shatter Europe”, Kyiv has claimed. In a flurry of European diplomacy yesterday, Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor, spoke with Mr Lukashenko for around an hour about the border crisis, Belarusian state media reported.

It was Mr Lukashenko’s first phone call with a Western leader since he suppressed mass anti-government protests against him last summer, leading to EU sanctions.

Meanwhile, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s leader, said he had discussed the situation on the Polish border with Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, and that the pair had agreed to “act together against hybrid attacks”.

Helicopter footage released by Polish authorities yesterday showed at least 1,000 people gathered at the country’s border with Belarus.

The asylum seekers, many from Iraq, Syria and Yemen, have been living in tents in the woods for days.

Hundreds of Polish military police and crowd-control vehicles stood guard on the other side of the fence, with helicopters hovering nearby, to prevent the asylum seekers breaking through.

Polish police warned the migrants via loudspeaker that Belarus had “deceived them” and that they would not be allowed into the country.

Brussels believes Mr Lukashenko has arranged the crisis in order to punish the bloc for sanctions against his regime. The EU yesterday agreed to imposing sanctions on airlines, travel agents and individuals accused of helping Mr Lukashenko fuel the crisis.

Regarding the military build-up near Ukraine, Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, warned that it had cut the time the West would have to prepare for any invasion.

He yesterday urged the transatlantic alliance to be “realistic” about the threat following warnings last week from US intelligence officials that Moscow could be plotting a repeat of the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Mr Stoltenberg said: “We see an unusual concentration of troops, and we know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capability before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine. Nato remains vigilant, we are monitoring the situation very closely and we continue to consult among our allies and partners such as Ukraine and the European Union.

“Any further provocation or aggressive actions by Russia would be of serious concern.”

He spoke after a meeting in Brussels with Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, who said Russia’s “sophisticated military infrastructure” was “ready to be used” against his country.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops have been amassing near the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, according to satellite photos, with hi-tech military equipment also being deployed in the area near the breakaway Donbas region.

Russia has dismissed the fears of an invasion as “alarmist” and accused Nato of provoking tensions in the region with its own unplanned exercises. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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