Russia has indicated that it is prepared to keep talking to the west about its security concerns, raising hopes it wants to de-escalate a crisis over Ukraine that has raised the prospect of a new war in Europe.
During a one-on-one televised meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said diplomatic engagement with the west should continue and that he could see a way to move forward with talks.
Asked by Putin about the likelihood of a security agreement with the west over Ukraine and Nato, Lavrov said: “There’s always a chance.”
Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor who is due to meet Putin for talks in Tuesday in Moscow, also stressed on Monday that Ukrainian membership of Nato was “not on the agenda” – a message that could be seen as an attempt to address Russia’s security concerns .
“Alliance membership [for Ukraine] is practically not an issue, ”Scholz said after talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv. “And that’s why it’s a bit bizarre that the Russian government is turning something that’s really not on the agenda into a big political problem.”
Lavrov’s comments, in a carefully managed Kremlin setting, came after a number of western capitals warned that Russia could launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine within days and urged their citizens to leave the country. Russia has denied it has any plans to invade.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken on Monday said the operations of the US embassy in Kyiv would be temporarily shifted to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv “due to the dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces.”
“My team and I are constantly reviewing the security situation to determine when prudence dictates a change in posture,” he said, adding: “The embassy will remain engaged with the Ukrainian government, coordinating diplomatic engagement in Ukraine. We are also continuing our intensive diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis. ”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson urged Putin to step back from the “edge of the precipice” as he warned the “evidence is pretty clear” Moscow is planning an invasion of Ukraine. “There is still time for President Putin to step back,” he added.
Lavrov said in a meeting with Putin that the US had put forward concrete proposals on reducing military risks, and urged the Russian president to continue talks. However, some key Russian demands remained unaddressed.
Lavrov suggested that the diplomatic activity of the past months had produced some results for Russia. Moscow’s demands, first outlined in December, had succeeded in “shaking up” western governments, Lavrov said, creating “a willingness to enter into serious negotiations” and progress on issues that Russia had long sought to discuss.
“So I think we can now consider a way forward,” he said.
Lavrov’s comments follow a weekend of intense diplomacy designed to de-escalate military tensions between Moscow and the west, including a call between Putin and US president Joe Biden and another on Saturday between Putin and French president Emmanuel Macron.
During his trip to Kyiv, Scholz stressed the principle that every country was free to join whatever alliance it chose “is not up for discussion” and there “are no such things as spheres of interest in Europe”. “But we should look reality in the face,” he added.
Scholz insisted that Germany stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Ukraine. He said Germany had decided to speed up the release of € 150mn in loans to Kyiv along with a new credit worth another € 150mn. Germany had given Ukraine more than $ 2bn in economic aid since 2014, he added.
Lavrov said Russia had prepared a 10-page letter outlining its reaction to the US and Nato response to Russia’s security requests, first laid out in a letter in December.
Russia’s demands include a rollback of Nato’s eastward expansion and a ban on Ukraine joining the military transatlantic alliance in the future. It has massed about 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s eastern flank.
Russia is holding joint military exercises in Belarus, and has held smaller drills on the border with Ukraine, raising fears that such actions were preparations for military action.
Scholz said Russia’s military activities on the Ukrainian border were “incomprehensible to us”.
“There are no sensible reasons for such a military build-up,” he said, adding that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity were “non-negotiable” for Germany.
But Zelensky acknowledged that the two had disagreed on some issues during their talks, in particular the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would increase the volume of Russian gas traveling directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea.
“We see NS2 exclusively through the prism of energy and security risks for us and the region,” said Zelensky. “We clearly understand that this is a geopolitical weapon.”
In London, Johnson said European countries needed to “get Nord Stream  out of the bloodstream. . . yank out that hypodermic drip feed of Russian hydrocarbons that is keeping so many European economies going. ”
He stressed the need to find “alternative sources of energy” to reduce European reliance on Russian gas, adding that the continent had to “get ready to impose some very, very severe economic consequences” on Moscow.