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Can European shuttle diplomacy avert war in Ukraine?

Polish President Andrzej Duda, left, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron at a news conference in Berlin on Feb. 8. (Thibault Camus/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

PARIS — It was a week of mad-dash diplomacy for European leaders, a dramatic shift after two years in which the pandemic halted most international travel.

French President Emmanuel Macron hit Moscow, Kyiv and Berlin. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with the head of NATO in Brussels, then flew to visit British troops deployed in Poland. And new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made his first official trip to Washington and plans to visit Kyiv and Moscow next week.

Macron, Johnson and Scholz are trying to prove themselves on the world stage and send specific signals to their domestic constituents. But they also share the same overarching goal: to stop a looming ground war involving Russia on the European continent.

Whether they will succeed is unclear. Many European governments had made a deliberate choice to keep their embassy staffs in Ukraine while other countries were evacuating some of theirs in the past days and weeks. But as U.S. officials warned Friday that Putin could invade Ukraine within the week, one country after another told its nationals to leave immediately.

Most U.S. embassy personnel evacuated from Kyiv amid escalating fears of a Russian offensive

When Russia last invaded Ukraine, in 2014, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with her fluent Russian and more than a decade of experience in dealing with Vladimir Putin, who naturally took the lead in shepherding a European response with sanctions. And it was Merkel and French President François Hollande who eventually brokered a peace deal with the Minsk agreement. But now, as Europe faces its first security crisis since Merkel’s departure in December, the absence of her influence is being felt.

Olaf Scholz tries to find his footing

Although Scholz is only a few months into the job, being chancellor of the European Union’s most populous nation and biggest economy automatically conveys clout. His approach has often mirrored Merkel’s cautious style, and as her finance minister and vice chancellor, he built a reputation as a steady hand during crises.

But the standoff over Ukraine has been a high-stakes test for the new leader.

His coalition government has struggled to agree on a joint approach — on the tone to take with Moscow, on potential sanctions, on whether the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany should be used as leverage. In a leaked cable, the German ambassador in Washington, Emily Haber, warned Berlin that it was increasingly being perceived in the United States as an “unreliable partner,” Der Spiegel reported.

Scholz’s flurry of diplomacy is no doubt aimed, in part, to counter that impression. At a news conference at the White House on Monday, he said that his country was “absolutely united” with the United States and other NATO allies and asserted that “we will not be taking different steps.” Still, he avoided making any direct statements about Nord Stream 2. It was Biden who delivered the forceful message: “If Russia invades, that means tanks or troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, there will be no longer Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.”

Biden vows to stop Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

Some in Merkel’s camp have drawn a contrast between Scholz’s performance and the former chancellor’s studied competence. It would be good “if Olaf Scholz consulted Angela Merkel,” said Markus Söder, the head of the smaller sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Germany’s new chancellor just needs time to find his feet, said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and the chairman of the Munich Security Conference.

“I’m sure Olaf Scholz regrets more than anyone else that he had to start his mission at a moment of extreme international attention,” Ischinger said.

He noted that when Macron was elected to the French presidency in 2017, he was the “new kid on the block,” while Merkel had already served for about a decade.

“She knew everybody around the world, and she was known to everyone around the world,” he said. “And Emmanuel Macron had to make his first phone calls. That creates an unequal relationship for a while.”

The Ukraine crisis is likely to explode or be resolved before Scholz is able to make those connections.

Emmanuel Macron as Putin’s interlocutor

Long overshadowed on the international stage by Merkel, Macron has claimed a central role in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. He has been pushing for a diplomatic resolution through what is known as “Normandy Format” talks — involving France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia. And in addition to his 5½-hour meeting with Putin in Moscow, he has spoken to the Russian leader multiple times by phone in recent days, including for more than an hour on Saturday.

“It’s a moment of war and peace, a moment of history that’s happening in Europe — and he cherishes these moments, when he thinks everything is at stake, and he wants to get involved,” said Joseph de Weck, the author of a book on Macron.

De Weck added: “I think he would act exactly the same way” if there wasn’t a French presidential election in two months.

When he met with Putin on Monday, Macron struck a conciliatory tone that surprised some observers. He called Russia a “friend” and asserted: “There’s no security for the Europeans if there is no security for Russia.”

Some observers raised questions about whether Macron might be going rogue. And it is true that he wants Europe to stake out greater independence from the United States on security issues. But he has been consulting regularly with President Biden and with his European allies. On both sides of the Atlantic, there seems to be a concerted effort to avoid the sort of surprise and anger that followed the Biden administration’s move to share sensitive nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia, which effectively canceled an earlier agreement between Australia and France.

Macron says Europeans need to stop being naive and assert independence from the United States

Macron also followed his Moscow meeting by issuing a joint declaration with Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda, warning that “any further military aggression by Russia against Ukraine will have massive consequences and severe costs.”

On Saturday, he told Putin “sincere dialogue was not compatible with escalation,” according to the French government summary of the call.

“Macron dreams of repeating the feat of Nicolas Sarkozy,” said Marc Endeweld, the author of several books on French foreign policy and Macron. When Sarkozy was president in 2008, he managed a diplomatic resolution of the crisis between Georgia and Russia. Endeweld noted that then, as now, France held the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union.

French government officials have been eager to convey that Macron’s efforts are helpful. In a briefing with journalists, a senior French official recalled Putin saying that Macron is “the only one with whom he could have such in-depth discussions.”

But as Emre Peker of the Eurasia Group noted in a risk-assessment memo: “The Kremlin also made clear after the Macron-Putin meeting that the US is Russia’s primary dialogue partner on European security.”

Boris Johnson sets out to prove himself and ‘Global Britain’

The departure of Britain from the European Union has made it harder for the country to claim the title of leader of Europe. But that didn’t stop Johnson from boasting that he and his government were “bringing the West together” on Ukraine.

Britain undoubtedly plays an outsize role in military support for Ukraine. It has supplied 2,000 antitank weapons, provided training for 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers and committed $110 million to bolster the Ukrainian navy.

Johnson has emphasized that British soldiers will not fight in Ukraine. But he is sending 350 Royal Marines to Poland. And when meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week, the prime minister said he offered to double the British troop numbers in Estonia, deploy more Royal Air Force jets to southern Europe and dispatch a destroyer and offshore patrol vessel to the eastern Mediterranean.

Johnson said this was “probably the most dangerous moment” in what he described as “the biggest security crisis Europe has faced for decades.”

What’s behind Boris Johnson’s boast he’s leading the West on Ukraine

Washington Post opinion columnist James Hohmann tells reporter Libby Casey how Ukraine could try to defend itself against a Russian invasion. (Video: The Washington Post)

For Johnson’s government, the Ukraine crisis offers an opportunity to prove that post-Brexit Britain is still a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.

The country’s withdrawal from the E.U. limited its opportunities to be a transatlantic bridge. But Britain remains one of the dominant military powers in NATO and Europe, alongside the United States and France, and is a member of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance.

Britain isn’t reliant on Russian natural gas as some European countries are. It gets about half of its gas from domestic fields in the North Sea, and it imports about a third from Norway.

That “allows Britain a margin of freedom, of maneuverability,” said Jonathan Eyal, associate director at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

But critics say the British government’s tough talk is undermined by the fact that London has long been a playground for Russian oligarchs, who pour billions of dollars into the property market.

Johnson’s ability to devote himself to the Ukraine crisis also is constrained by his situation at home in Britain. On Friday, he received a questionnaire from Scotland Yard, signaling that he is among those personally being investigated for participating in parties that may have violated pandemic lockdown rules.

Adam reported from London and Morris from Berlin.