Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer holds 'open and tough' talks with Vladimir Putin

Visit is first by an EU leader to Russian president's homeland since invasion of Ukraine began

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The Chancellor of Austria on Monday became the first western leader to visit Vladimir Putin since the war began in Ukraine, in a mission aimed at exposing the Russian President to hard truths about his seven-week offensive.

Karl Nehammer said he had spoken of "serious war crimes" committed by Russia's forces in what he said were "direct, open and tough" discussions in a 75-minute meeting with Mr Putin.

He urged Mr Putin to call off his invasion because "in a war, there are only losers on both sides", as Ukraine and its allies prepare for a fresh Russian onslaught on the eastern Donbas region.

"I mentioned the serious war crimes in Bucha and other locations and stressed that all those responsible have to be brought to justice," he said after the meeting ended.

The two leaders met away from television cameras at the Russian leader's Novo-Ogaryovo residence, rather than the Kremlin, as Austria sought to deflect concerns that Mr Putin would exploit the meeting for propaganda. There were no official pictures and no joint press conference.

Austria is not a member of Nato and its neutral status has long made it a centre for international diplomacy like its neighbour Switzerland, but as part of the European Union it has approved five rounds of economic sanctions against Russia.

Mr Nehammer's trip had received a mixed reception at home and abroad but he said there was "no alternative" to holding face-to-face talks which a leading member of his Cabinet said would lay bare the reality of the war.

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said at a meeting of EU counterparts on Monday that the visit would “make clear to President Putin what the reality outside the walls of the Kremlin really is”.

He said it "makes a difference to be face to face and tell him what the reality is: that this president has de facto lost the war morally.”

But Lithuanian foreign chief Gabrielius Landsbergis said of Mr Putin that he had “seen a lot of effort by many leaders to talk to the guy … I personally have no reason to believe that he’s talkable”.

The EU meeting ended with no agreement on extending sanctions further into the energy sector amid pressure from some members to cut off exports of Russian oil and gas.

Measures against Russia's lucrative oil sector are being discussed for a potential sixth package of sanctions, after coal deliveries were banned last week. Ukraine wants its allies to complete the set by banning Russian gas.

Ireland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Poland were among the countries to signal support for an oil embargo on Monday but Germany, Hungary and Luxembourg are in the camp which fears the economic fallout of stopping imports immediately.

Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn said there was no guarantee that even cutting off Russia's oil exports would force Mr Putin to rethink and said an energy crisis in Russia-reliant Germany could spill over into its neighbours.

"If everyone knew that it would make Putin stop this barbarism, it would be easy," he said. "But my feeling is that even if we did it, or had already done it, we would be in the same situation."

Karl Nehammer's motorocade travels into Moscow on his way to visit Vladimir Putin. EPA

Ukraine and its allies are preparing for a renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, after the withdrawal from around Kyiv that exposed alleged atrocities in areas left behind by Mr Putin's forces.

The bloc's 27 foreign ministers held talks in Luxembourg with the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as they prepare possible war crimes charges against the Russian leadership.

Mr Nehammer said he had raised the humanitarian fallout of the war with Mr Putin amid fears for global food supplies because of the conflict between two of the world's top wheat producers.

He raised the "urgent" need for humanitarian corridors "to bring water and food into besieged towns and (to) remove women, children and the injured".

"I will now inform our European partners about the conversation and discuss further steps," he said.

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, said after Monday's talks that Russian attempts to blame food problems on western sanctions ignored what he said was its bombardment of farms and ports.

"It’s Russia sowing bombs in Ukraine’s fields and Russia’s warships blockading [dozens] of ships full of wheat that cannot go out of the Ukrainian harbours," he said.

Visits by European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron to the Kremlin in February failed to prevent Russia invading Ukraine. AP

The Austrian chancellor visited Ukraine two days before travelling to Moscow, appearing moved by his visit to the alleged massacre site of Bucha near Kyiv. He said he had told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as well as other European leaders, about his plans to visit Russia.

Mr Schallenberg rejected suggestions that Austria was undermining the EU's united front. “There is no doubt where Austria stands. We are very clearly on the side of international law,” he said.

The leaders of France and Germany made high-profile visits to the Kremlin in the weeks before the invasion in doomed attempts to stop Russia’s troop build-up near Ukraine from escalating into a military assault.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose negotiations around an outsized Kremlin table came to symbolise the West’s estrangement with Russia, later admitted he had been deceived by Mr Putin.

Western leaders have since spoken by phone to Mr Putin but have not visited Moscow. The Russian president has been hit by sanctions targeting his nebulous personal fortune as Ukraine's allies try to isolate him internationally.

Mr Zelenskyy has said he is willing to negotiate with Mr Putin personally as the two sides discuss a potential agreement about Ukraine’s future alignment and the status of the disputed Donbas and Crimea regions.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday said he suggested direct talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Mr Modi said that news about the killing of civilians in Bucha was particularly worrying. His remarks came before a virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden.

Updated: April 11, 2022, 9:16 PM
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