PM and Macron discuss 'crucial' week ahead amid concerns over 'biggest war since 1945'

20 February 2022, 07:57 | Updated: 20 February 2022, 21:31

The PM spoke with Emmanuel Macron on Sunday
The PM spoke with Emmanuel Macron on Sunday. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Boris Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron have agreed during a phone call that the next week will be "crucial for diplomacy" as the West looks to avert war between Russia and Ukraine.

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It comes after Mr Macron spoke earlier with both Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Mr Johnson had warned on Sunday morning that Russia's plan to invade Ukraine would lead to the largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister spoke to French president Macron tonight about the situation in Ukraine. They updated one another on their respective diplomatic efforts, including President Macron's call with President Putin today.

"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 Prime Minister stressed that Ukraine's voice must be central in any discussions.

"The leaders agreed on the need for both Russia and Ukraine to meet their commitments under the Minsk Agreements in full. They also underscored the need for President Putin to step back from his current threats and withdraw troops from Ukraine's border.

"The Prime Minister and President Macron agreed next week would be crucial for diplomacy and resolved to stay in close contact."

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Meanwhile, US intelligence reportedly shows Mr Putin has already given his troops orders to invade.

CBS News' David Martin said on Sunday afternoon: "The intelligence says that Russian troops have actually received orders now to proceed with the invasion.

"So not only are they moving up closer and closer to the border into these attack positions, but the commanders on the ground are making specific plans for how they would maneuver in their sector of the battlefield.

"They're doing everything that American commanders would do once they got the order to proceed."

Mr Macron discussed the need to step up the search for a diplomatic solution with Mr Putin, and the possible ways to secure immediate de-escalation with Mr Zelenskiy.

The Kremlin said in a statement: "The presidents acknowledged the need to intensify the search for solutions through diplomatic means via the foreign ministries and political advisers to the leaders of the Normandy format.

"These contacts should facilitate the restoration of the ceasefire regime and ensure progress in the settlement of the conflict in Donbass."

It comes as Ukraine's military said two soldiers died on Saturday as violence escalated in the east of the country between government forces and rebels.

There are growing fears Russia could use the increase in tension in the separatist-held region as justification for an attack on Ukraine.

The Prime Minister spent Saturday engaged in diplomatic efforts to avoid war as he warned the Kremlin during a speech at the Munich Security Conference of increased financial sanctions should Mr Putin order troops across the border.

He also told broadcasters that he believed Mr Putin's invasion plan was "in motion" with the aggression in the Donbas region potentially a "prelude to bigger action".

In other comments made while in Germany, Mr Johnson warned that the "sheer scale" of the offensive being prepared by Moscow had not been seen for almost 80 years.

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"The plan that we're seeing is for something that could be the biggest war in Europe since 1945 just in terms of sheer scale," Mr Johnson told the BBC.

"You're looking at not just an invasion through the east through the Donbas, but according to the intelligence we are seeing, coming down from the north, down from Belarus and actually encircling Kyiv itself, as Joe Biden explained to a lot of us last night.

"I think a lot of people need to understand the sheer cost in human life that that could entail, not just for Ukrainians but for Russians."

Ms Truss, speaking to the Mail On Sunday, said the West needed to "stop" Moscow in its tracks or else otherwise Mr Putin would look to "turn the clock back to the mid 1990s or even before then" by possibly annexing the Baltic States - such as Estonia and Latvia - and the Western Balkans, which includes Serbia and Albania.

Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel warned that a conflict between Moscow and Kyiv would "not just be a foreign quarrel about which we know little".

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the Cabinet minister said the "effects would be felt here too" given the UK has previously experienced Russian cyber "interference" against its media, telecommunications and energy infrastructure.

Mr Johnson held talks with a number of European leaders while in Bavaria, including meeting Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

During his speech to the annual summit, Mr Zelenskyy was critical of what he called "appeasement" by the West in the face of Russian aggression.

"We have the right to demand to move from the appeasement policy to ensuring the guarantees of security," he said, in a translation offered by the conference.

Mr Zelenskyy also questioned why western leaders were waiting for Russia to invade before applying sanctions, given 150,000 of Moscow's troops are amassed on his country's border.

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The criticism comes as anxiety in the West increases that mounting instability in the Donbas region in Ukraine's east, where government forces have been fighting pro-Russia rebels since 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 14,000 people, could spiral into a wider battle.

Rebel leaders announced a call to arms in the Donetsk and Luhansk region, while Ukraine's military said two soldiers were killed on Saturday in a government-held part of Donetsk.

Top Ukrainian military officials also came under shelling attack during a tour of the conflict front, forcing them to flee to a bomb shelter.

Mr Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president and Moscow ally, spent Saturday watching Russian forces flex their military might during massive nuclear drills, which involved multiple practice missile launches.

It is feared the exercises are a further indication that Russia is gearing up for an offensive.