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Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron during a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on June 26, 2020.Sputnik Photo Agency/Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron heads to talks with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday hoping to ensure Europe gets a say in broader U.S.-Russian negotiations over Ukraine, but risks embarrassment if he returns empty-handed.

France, Russia and Ukraine have had numerous phone conversations over the past 10 days that culminated on Friday with Mr. Macron’s office confirming that he would travel to Moscow and the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on Feb. 7 and 8.

The trip, co-ordinated with Washington and Berlin, is part of diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions after Russia massed some 100,000 troops near Ukraine and demanded NATO and U.S. security guarantees, including that NATO never admit Kyiv as a member.

For Mr. Macron, it will be a chance to showcase his leadership credentials ahead of his expected re-election bid in April, while trying to get concessions from Mr. Putin, especially in talks to end the pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

“The Russians gave us signals so we have to jump on them … In a way we’re calling their bluff,” said a senior French official. “But whether we can get anything, nobody can predict. What it does is help to gain time and reduce these tensions.”

Mr. Macron aims to capitalize on limited progress made during four-way “Normandy format” peace talks on Ukraine in Paris last month. He hopes to get a commitment from Mr. Putin to continue the talks, hold a leaders summit and dial down tensions on the Russia-Ukraine border, two sources close to Mr. Macron said.

“We’re heading to Putin’s lair, in many ways it’s a throw of the dice,” one source close to Mr. Macron told Reuters.

The Kremlin has made clear the priority of the talks will be Moscow’s demands for security guarantees from the West.

“Putin doesn’t need to offer Macron anything because for him the negotiation is with the Americans,” said a former French envoy to the region, adding that Mr. Putin was likely to use the session with Mr. Macron to play divide and rule between NATO allies.

Since taking power in 2017, Mr. Macron has nurtured relationships with what Western diplomats say are awkward leaders such as Mr. Putin, receiving him at the Palace of Versailles and his summer retreat in Bregancon with much fanfare as he sought a reset of relations with Moscow.

But Mr. Macron has had scant success and his efforts to establish a strategic dialogue with Mr. Putin have often irritated some eastern European and Baltic partners who have bemoaned his lack of transparency and co-ordination.

French officials say they have learned from previous errors of judgment to ensure European Union and NATO allies are kept fully in the loop. The French presidency has been calling EU partners to brief them ahead of Mr. Macron’s trip but three EU diplomats said the contacts lacked substance, focusing more on just re-engaging with Mr. Putin and showing solidarity with Kyiv.

Mr. Macron’s pending visit to Moscow has also raised eyebrows among Western leaders backing Ukraine in its volatile standoff with Russia.

While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will host three Baltic leaders in Berlin before going first to Kyiv and then Moscow for talks, Mr. Macron will head first to Russia, a choice that has disappointed Ukrainian officials.

“The optics for Mr. Macron’s internal politics ahead of the election are good because they show the French he is ‘saving the world,’ but we don’t like the methods,” said a senior official from an eastern European nation.

“There’s always a lack of transparency and co-ordination, which is ironic as they [France] are always asking for transparency from the Americans.”

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