Russia moves landing craft in the Black Sea as Macron meets Ukrainian leader

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LONDON — As American soldiers landed in Poland, French President Emmanuel Macron visited the Mariinskyi Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine.

The previous night, he had walked in the snow in Moscow’s Red Square after a five-hour meeting with Vladimir Putin.

The Americans had been sent to Poland by an American president determined to shore up Europe’s eastern flank and strengthen a united front against Russia.

Frenchman Macron was on a possibly futile peacekeeping mission, but he was sitting there, at opposite ends of a long white table, trying to guess the Russian president‘s intentions.

Will he or will he not invade Ukraine?

There was no big breakthrough, and no one expected it, but Macron looked like a man of tantalizing intelligence. A nugget of hope.

“We spoke with President Putin and he told me that he would not trigger an escalation. I think it is important,” Macron said.

Important, but was it true that Russia was retreating, de-escalating after months of building up 130,000 soldiers to more or less encircle Ukraine?

Around the same time Macron was speaking, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that six large Russian Navy landing craft had been sent to the Black Sea.

For Americans and Europeans, this could mean only one thing, the possibility of a major amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coastline.

The specter of a full-scale Russian invasion seemed to be drawing to a close.

From the Kremlin came denial. There is no deal to defuse, to back down, a spokesman said, which left Macron confused, and perhaps ridiculed, if he fell a little bit into Putin’s deception.

“It is wrong in its essence,” said the voice of the Kremlin. “Moscow and Paris could not conclude any agreement. It’s just not possible.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, knows the mistrust of his close namesake in Moscow. He is understandably suspicious and deeply suspicious, as his country’s eastern border has been besieged for years by pro-Russian militants.

“Ukraine is very patient, because it is very wise,” he said. “I think it’s very important not only for Ukraine but also for the whole of Europe and for the Russians.”

Wisdom can be fleeting when you face an invading army and your country is threatened with overthrow and occupation. And you can’t be sure that your supposed allies will come to your defense.

“I don’t trust words in general,” Zelensky said, alongside Macron. The sincerity of a politician is measured by his actions, he said. “In our case, real sincerity is de-escalation.”

While all this was going on, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock put on a helmet and body armor and went to visit Ukraine’s eastern frontline.

She saw houses destroyed by bombing, doors riddled with bullet holes; children’s toys abandoned as families fled the constant shelling. It is now there that the Ukrainian soldiers wait in the trenches for the advance of an overwhelming Russian army.

“I’m here,” she said, “to get a sense of what it means that we still have war in the middle of Europe.”

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