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European leaders caution against escalating Russia-Ukraine tensions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After conferring with European allies, President Biden claimed that there is a united front on the Russian threat to Ukraine. But European leaders say the talk of an invasion may be sowing divisions among them. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: This week, after the U.S. announced it was pulling the families of American diplomats out of Kyiv, the European Union's foreign policy chief warned against overdramatizing the situation. French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe must take Russian President Vladimir Putin down the path of de-escalation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "And the EU," he said, "will use every tool in its diplomatic toolbox." Yesterday, France hosted a meeting of the four powers that have been seeking to end the long-simmering war in eastern Ukraine. The diplomats from France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine met for eight hours with a promise to meet again. But those talks did not address the major issues - the 100,000-plus Russian troops on Ukraine's borders, Russia's demands that NATO never accept Ukraine as a member. Political analyst Christian Makarian says the Russian leader has a clear message for Europe.

CHRISTIAN MAKARIAN: Putin wants the Europeans to understand that between Russia and America, there is nothing. Russia is a superpower. America is a superpower. And Europe is not.

BEARDSLEY: Makarian says Putin relishes divisions across the Atlantic and among Europeans. The Baltic states and Poland, for example, take a much harder line on Russia than Germany, which exports to Russia and depends on Russian gas.

MAKARIAN: The power of Germany is not in diplomacy but in economy. So if Germany loses its economic positions, Germany loses also its diplomatic status.

BEARDSLEY: For Germany, it's also about its history with Russia, says Dominique Moisi with the Montaigne Institute.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: The Germans still feel that it would be tough for them to deliver weapons that could be used against Russia. The memories of World War II are still present in the German mind.

BEARDSLEY: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met Macron in Berlin Tuesday to align the Russia policy of the EU's two biggest economies. They proclaimed unity, but their tones were different, says Sylvie Kauffmann, editorialist with French newspaper Le Monde.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: Macron was much more aggressive in a way. He spoke about Russia as a force of instability for the European order.

BEARDSLEY: It may be more complicated for Germany, says Kauffmann, but when push comes to shove, the Germans will stand with their Western allies.

KAUFFMANN: I think there's an awareness now that the West cannot afford to appear divided in front of the Russian threat. And there's also an awareness that this crisis and this conflict is larger than Ukraine.

BEARDSLEY: But Dominique Moisi says the West is divided, and Putin sees it - and not just in Europe.

MOISI: He sees the situation in America. What happened on January 6, march to the Capitol, has convinced him that democracy is dying in America.

BEARDSLEY: This makes it harder for Europe and America to show a strong united front when dealing with Russia.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS BAGALA'S "CIRCUIT BOARDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.