Macron sees decisive next few days for Ukraine after Putin meeting

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  • Macron confident of getting some results, even if not easy
  • Putin to speak again with Macron after Ukraine meeting
  • Germany and U.S. in "lockstep' on standoff -Biden
  • High-cost sanctions ready should Russia invade -Scholz

MOSCOW, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The coming days will be crucial in the Ukraine standoff, French President Emmanuel Macron said after a meeting on Monday with Russia's Vladimir Putin, who suggested some progress had been made in the talks.

Putin said the first Moscow summit he has held with a Western leader since the Kremlin began massing troops near its neighbor had been substantive, but also repeated warnings about the threat of war were Ukraine to join NATO.

Russia, jostling for influence in post-Cold War Europe, wants security guarantees that include a promise of no missile deployments near its borders and a scaling back of NATO's military infrastructure.

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The West has said some of Russia's demands are "non-starters" but it is willing to talk about arms control and confidence-building steps.

Macron, who has pushed his diplomatic credentials as he eyes possible re-election in two months' time, held more than five hours of talks over dinner on Monday with the Russian president.

"The next few days will be decisive and will require intensive discussions which we will pursue together," Macron told reporters after the meal, which included reindeer with sweet potatoes and blackberries.

Putin suggested some of Macron's ideas could help defuse the crisis.

"A number of his ideas, proposals, which are probably still too early to talk about, I think it is quite possible to make the basis of our further joint steps," he said.

The pair are due to speak again after Macron meets with Ukraine's leadership, planned for Tuesday.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, is backing separatists in the eastern part of the country, and has massed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border.

It has said it is not planning an invasion but could take unspecified military action if its security demands are not met.

Moscow sees NATO's addition of 14 new east European members since the Cold War ended three decades ago as an encroachment on its sphere of influence and a threat to its security.

"If Ukraine joins NATO and tries to get Crimea back by military means, European countries will automatically be drawn into military conflict with Russia," Putin said, speaking with heavy emphasis. "There will be no winners."

He urged Ukraine to comply with the Minsk agreements, which include an aim to end the separatist war by Russian-speakers in the Donbass region.

Macron said the independence of Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus, where Russia is engaged in military exercises, must be preserved and that he was certain of progress.

"Together... I'm sure we will get a result, even if it's not easy," said the French leader.

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In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden, hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said there was still a diplomatic off-ramp to resolve the crisis, stressing the United States and Europe's biggest economy were "in lockstep."

The two nations will also ensure sanctions can be imposed quickly in the event of a fresh attack, Scholz told reporters. "It will have very high costs for Russia," he said.

While the West has ruled out defending Ukraine with military force, it has promised to use an arsenal of tools including arms shipments and reinforcement of nearby NATO countries.

Last week, Biden ordered nearly 3,000 U.S. troops to deploy in Poland and Romania to better protect NATO's eastern flank. Germany announced on Monday it would deploy 350 troops to Lithuania to reinforce a NATO battle group.

On her second visit to Kyiv in three weeks, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock promised unequivocal support, stressing that Germany was willing to pay a high economic price to contain Moscow.

Ukrainian officials have publicly criticized Berlin 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.

Nord Stream 2 is designed to double the amount of gas flowing from Russia straight to Germany, bypassing traditional transit nation Ukraine.

President Joe Biden reiterated on Monday a U.S. threat that the energy project, which is still awaiting final approval, will not go ahead if Russia launches an incursion into Ukraine. He did not specify how he would ensure that.

European countries are heavily reliant on Russian energy, high prices for which are already fuelling inflation.

Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde warned last week of "geopolitical clouds" over the European economy.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "a frank conversation" with Baerbock about weapons had found "both common ground and a draft solution" but did not give details.

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Reporting by Michel Rose and Dmitry Antonov in Moscow; additional reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Christian Lowe, Richard Lough and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris, Jeff Mason, Andrea Shalal and Chris Gallagher in Washington and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Writing by Catherine Evans and Costas Pitas; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Rosalba O'Brien

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