You can count on us, Germany tells Ukraine as both sides play down differences

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  • Baerbock visiting Kyiv for second time in three weeks
  • Germany, Ukraine say no one can drive wedge between them
  • Fearing Russian invasion, Ukraine wants German weapons

KYIV, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promised unequivocal German support for Ukraine on a visit to Kyiv on Monday as the two sides sought to narrow differences on Ukraine's request for weapons to prepare for a possible attack from Russia.

In a joint press conference, Baerbock and her Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba said no one would be able to drive a wedge between their two countries, and Baerbock stressed Germany was willing to pay a high economic price to contain Moscow.

But there was also confusion about whether or not Baerbock was going to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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Two diplomatic sources said the meeting had been cancelled, Zelenskiy's office said no such meeting had been scheduled, while Kuleba said the absence of such a meeting should not be taken as a sign of anything.

Ukrainian officials have publicly criticised Germany for refusing to sell defensive weapons to Kyiv and over its perceived reluctance to stop gas flowing through the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia if Moscow launches an attack.

Baerbock's visit to Kyiv, her second in three weeks, is one of a series by senior officials from NATO member states intended to show solidarity with Ukraine since Russia massed tens of thousands of troops near its borders.

Moscow says it has no plans to attack but is seeking Western security guarantees, including a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO, a demand that the military alliance has said is a non-starter. Western powers have threatened Russia with new sanctions if it launches an attack. read more

"We stand with Ukraine," Baerbock said. "No one will succeed in driving a wedge between us," she said, adding: "Dear Dmytro, you know that you can count on Germany."

Baerbock added that the ball was in Moscow's court to de-escalate the situation.

Kuleba said Baerbock had not tried to force Ukraine into concessions ahead of new planned talks between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France that are due to take place in Berlin.

On the issue of weapons, Kuleba said: "It was a frank conversation - we have different positions here. But our task is...to look for common ground and solutions. And I think that today we have found both common ground and a draft solution. Now we will wait for the steps of the German government."

UKRAINE ASKS FOR MILITARY HARDWARE

Baerbock held talks in Kyiv one day before the arrival of French President Emmanuel Macron, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday.

Germany and France are co-sponsors of peace talks between Ukraine and Russian-backed forces fighting a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014.

Germany also has the closest economic ties to Moscow of any major Western power, buying half its natural gas from Russia. That has long given Berlin a strong incentive to keep relations with Moscow smooth.

Ukraine has pressed Germany for military hardware. According to a letter last week from the Ukrainian embassy, seen by Reuters, Kyiv is requesting anti-aircraft and anti-rocket systems, anti-drone weapons and demining equipment.

The crisis poses the first big foreign policy test for Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who took office last year after 16 years of leadership by Angela Merkel, and who faces division within his coalition over how to respond to Russian pressure.

Scholz was to meet U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House on Monday and will visit Kyiv next week.

In the Ukrainian capital, Baerbock visited a German-funded military hospital and will fly early on Tuesday to eastern Ukraine, closer to the front line of Ukraine's eight-year war with Russian-backed forces.

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Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets in Kyiv and Andreas Rinke in Berlin; writing by Matthias Williams, editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich

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