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Kremlin is top destination for European leaders

PARIS (AP) – Rarely in recent years has the Kremlin been so popular with European visitors.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived on Monday. The Hungarian prime minister visited last week. And in days to come, the German chancellor will be there, too. All are hoping to get through to President Vladimir Putin, the man who singlehandedl y shapes Russia’s course amid its military buildup near Ukraine and whose designs are a mystery even for his own narrow inner circle. “The priority for me on the Ukrainian question is dialogue with Russia and de-escalation,” Macron said this week as reporters were asking about a possible in-person meeting with Putin. “I’m very worried by the situation on the ground.” There are some signs that relations could thaw.

“From Putin’s perspective, he already has had something of a win, because he’s got our undivided attention and part of the exercise was clearly to get us to focus on him,” a former US intelligence officer on Russia and Eurasian affairs Fiona Hill, testified last week during a congressional hearing.

A senior Russian diplomat who led Moscow’s delegation in last month’s security talks with the US in Geneva Sergei Ryabkov said recently that Russia was now setting “the agenda that the US and the so-called ‘collective West’ now follow. We have seized the foreign policy initiative.”

Macron insists Europeans must have a say in the crisis that threatens the stability of the continent. Macron and Putin have already spoken three times by phone in recent days – with inconclusive results.

The French president has in the past shown scepticism of NATO, and in 2019 said the organisation was experiencing “brain death.” On Saturday, that scepticism was nowhere to be found, as Macron spoke by phone with NATO’s secretary-general and underscored “France’s commitment within NATO for the security of its allies.”

France has also offered to send troops to Romania as part of NATO, which has regained a sense of unity in recent weeks.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken spoke with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about efforts by NATO, the European Union and other countries to address Russia’s continued military build-up on Ukraine’s borders.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Fort of Bregancon in Bormes-les-Mimosas, southern France on August 19, 2019. FILE PHOTO: AP