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Scholz phones Putin after Biden and Macron’s diplomatic overture

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RIGA, Latvia — Russian President Vladimir Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday that Moscow’s relentless airstrikes on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure were “forced and unavoidable” due to Ukraine’s attacks on the Crimean Bridge and ‘other Russian targets, and he blamed Western nations’ policy of supporting Ukraine for prolonging the war, which Russia started.

The hour-long call, made by Berlin, was Putin’s first with a Group of Seven leader since Russia suffered a series of battlefield defeats and since Moscow launched the wave of attacks against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure using missiles and self-detonating weapons. drones. These attacks have cut off electricity, heating and water in many parts of Ukraine, increasing the risk of a humanitarian disaster this winter.

The call came the day after President Biden, at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Washington, indicated his willingness to talk to Putin, provided the Russian leader was genuinely interested in “seek a way to end the war”. On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov ruled out ceding any territory Russia claims to have illegally annexed.

According to the Kremlin, Putin complained about Western nations sending weapons to Ukraine and training the country’s military and also complained about his “overall political and financial support for Ukraine”.

“The Russian president called on the German side to reconsider its approaches in the context of the Ukrainian events,” the Kremlin said.

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Amid a European Union proposal to set up a tribunal into alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, Putin also sought to deflect blame for the atrocities, accusing Ukraine of “increasing bloody crimes against the civilian population,” according to the Kremlin reading.

A German government statement said Scholz condemned Russian airstrikes against civilian infrastructure in Ukraine during the call and “underscored Germany’s determination to support Ukraine in securing its defense capability against the Russian aggression”.

Putin complained that the “destructive line” of the West, supplying arms and financial support to Ukraine “leads to the fact that Kyiv completely rejects the idea of ​​any negotiations”.

Biden, appearing with Macron, said: “I am ready to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding that he is looking for a way to end the war. If so, in consultation with my French and NATO friends, I will be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind. He didn’t do that.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has outlined the parameters of a peace deal, including full respect for the UN Charter, which would oblige Russia to withdraw from all illegally occupied Ukrainian sovereign territory, including Crimea. G-7 leaders including Scholz, Biden and Macron formally endorsed Zelensky’s proposal in a statement in October.

Biden says he could meet Putin – but not now

Peskov, noting that Biden had conditioned any discussion on Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, added that “obviously” Moscow was unwilling to do so. “What did President Biden actually say? He said negotiations would only be possible if Putin left Ukraine,” Peskov told reporters on Friday.

“The special military operation continues,” he said. adding that Putin was still open to negotiations since Russia preferred to achieve its goals in Ukraine “through peaceful diplomatic means”.

Putin last spoke to Scholz and Macron in mid-September, before his illegal attempt to annex the Ukrainian regions of Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, and also before an explosion on the Crimean Bridge that the Russia cited as the reason for its strikes on infrastructure. . Since then, Russia has lost a lot of ground, including withdrawing from the city of Kherson, the regional capital.

Given these territorial losses, Putin has seemed increasingly boxed in, paranoid and hostile, with his economy sinking and his global influence waning.

Ukraine war setbacks diminish Russia’s influence with regional allies

Rather than signaling a readiness to compromise, however, senior Russian officials have increasingly made a habit of airing discredited and baseless claims, insisting that Russia is really the victim. of the war and trying to blame the continued fighting on Ukraine because it refused to accept Russian terms.

Putin’s illegal annexations were aimed at establishing new Russian red lines and taking the territories off the table in future peace negotiations, terms he knew Kyiv could never agree to. But Russia was forced to return the city of Kherson and other territories west of the Dnieper, even after Russian officials repeatedly hinted they would defend the “new territories” with nuclear weapons.

Moscow and Kyiv are preparing for a bitter winter campaign that could decide the fate of each.

Scholz made the hour-long call to Putin on Friday, but it was unclear whether it was coordinated with allies or even with other EU countries, which have struggled in recent days to reach an agreement on a plan to impose a ceiling on Russian oil prices. . A spokesman for the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, said he was not informed before Scholz called.

Macron and Scholz have been criticized for their intermittent contact with Putin.

Macron has been accused of naively persisting in engaging with Putin even as the Russian leader has shown no willingness to change course in Ukraine.

In the first days after Putin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, Scholz was criticized for slow arms deliveries and dithering that had critics questioning whether he was trying to keep a open door to the Kremlin.

Even as Germany announced what it called a Zeitenwende, or turning point, in its foreign policy, tightening security and sending weapons to Ukraine, reality has not followed expectations.

Speaking at a security conference in Berlin earlier this week, Scholz said he would like to see a return to the old “peace order” that existed in Europe. “What Russia is doing today goes back to the imperialist approach of the 19th, 18th, 17th centuries, where a stronger country thinks it can take territory from a neighbor,” he said. “We need to return to a situation where we agree again that the borders will not be changed by force.”

In its statement on Friday, the German government said Scholz told Putin that a diplomatic solution, “including a withdrawal of Russian troops, must be found as soon as possible.”

Some EU countries have also suggested such talks with Putin risk showing divisions among Western allies when they should present a united front of support for Ukraine.

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Russia is quietly betting on hope that European unity over support for Ukraine will crumble over the winter, confident that rising inflation and energy costs, along with the cost growing war, could trigger popular anger.

A senior Eastern European official said he was not told in advance about Scholz’s call and learned about it from press accounts. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, expressed concern that a call from Scholz could be interpreted by Putin as a sign of European weakness, potentially signaling a willingness to accept an outcome other than “total liberation of Ukraine”. .”

Right now, the official said, “it shouldn’t be about dialogue” but about making sure there is “no space for Russia to continue terrorizing its neighbours.” With all the recent focus on holding Russia accountable, the official added, talking to the “person who is primarily responsible for these crimes” sends an ambivalent signal.

On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was indeed hitting civilian energy infrastructure, but claimed it was a military target and the attacks were designed to disrupt Western arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Lavrov claimed that Ukraine’s energy system “has been subordinated to Kyiv’s military interests”.

Morris reported from Berlin and Rauhala from Brussels.

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