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BERLIN: Hopes are rising that efforts to stop Russia from invading Ukraine may be starting to pay off, as the diplomatic push picks up Thursday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to meet Baltic leaders in Berlin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson heading to NATO and Poland.

In the face of the worst stand-off between Russia and the West since the Cold War, diplomatic action has kicked into high gear with European leaders zipping across the continent seeking to defuse the crisis.

Ahead of his huddle with Baltic leaders, Scholz said he saw "progress" on the diplomatic front.

"The task is that we ensure the security in Europe, and I believe that that will be achieved," he said at a joint press conference with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Wednesday.

Diplomatic flurry to avert Russia-NATO clash over Ukraine

The new German chancellor, who has been under fire over accusations that he has dithered over the crisis, will travel to Kyiv and Moscow next week for separate meetings with Ukraine and Russia's leaders, including his first face-to-face with President Vladimir Putin.

Striking a less optimistic note, Britain said Wednesday it was ready to deploy 1,000 more troops to deal with any humanitarian crisis linked to Ukraine.

Speaking from Moscow ahead of meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Moscow must choose a peaceful path in Ukraine or face "massive consequences" from Western sanctions.

Johnson will follow that message with a trip to meet NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Thursday before his Polish counterpart.

Lowering tensions

The West accuses Russia of having massed 100,000 soldiers near Ukraine's borders, while Russia has denied any plans to invade and has accused NATO countries of using belligerent rhetoric.

After his own diplomatic travel itinerary, French President Emmanuel Macron said Putin had told him that Moscow "would not be the source of an escalation".

For now, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said "diplomacy is continuing to lower tensions".

But somewhat deflating the chorus of upbeat noises, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned that Putin has continued sending troops to the border.

"We have continued to see even over the last 24 hours additional capabilities flow from elsewhere in Russia to that border with Ukraine and Belarus," he told reporters at a Wednesday briefing.

Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Ganna Malyar said the Russian forces on the frontier did not appear to be ready to launch an all-out assault, and were instead being used primarily "for political pressure and blackmail" at this stage.

Less than 24 hours after a trip to Washington, Germany's Scholz stood alongside Polish leader Andrzej Duda and Macron late Tuesday to declare Europeans' unity in their goal of averting war.

Putin, who has demanded sweeping security guarantees from NATO and the United States, said after his talks with Macron that Moscow would "do everything to find compromises that suit everyone".

He said several proposals put forward by Macron could "form a basis for further steps" on easing the crisis over Ukraine but did not give any details.

Red lines

At the same time as sending its military hardware to Ukraine's borders, Putin has issued demands the West says are unacceptable, including barring Ukraine from joining NATO and rolling back alliance forces in eastern Europe.

The French presidency said Macron's counterproposals included an engagement from both sides not to take any new military action, the launching of a strategic dialogue and efforts to revive the peace process for Ukraine's conflict.

First US troops arrive in Romania to bolster eastern flank against Russia

It also said an agreement would ensure the withdrawal of around 30,000 Russian soldiers from Belarus at the end of joint military exercises later this month.

The Kremlin insisted it never intended to leave the troops permanently on Belarusian territory.

The West faces a tough task trying to convince a wary Zelensky to accept any compromises.

Kyiv has laid out three "red lines" it vows not to cross: no compromise over Ukraine's territorial integrity, no direct talks with the separatists and no interference in its foreign policy.


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