Austria’s Nehammer says Putin meeting left “no positive impression”.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he had “not a positive impression” of his talks with Russian leader Vladimir Putin after making a last-minute trip to Moscow on Monday to try and end the country’s brutal invasion of Ukraine to mediate.

Nehammer said he had “direct, frank and tough” talks with the Russian president that lasted 75 minutes at a location outside the Russian capital. The talks were conducted in Russian with the help of an interpreter, although Putin is fluent in German.

The visit – which later surprised many European allies announced on Sunday evening – comes as Russia looks to significantly increase its military presence in Ukraine, in an apparent prelude to a renewed offensive in the east of the country.

Nehammer’s trip marks the first face-to-face meeting between Putin and a European leader since the Russian invasion began six weeks ago, and risks breaking with a previously united front of Europe, the US and their allies to portray Moscow as diplomatically isolated as a result of its aggression.

In a statement following the conclusion of the talks, Nehammer said he felt it was his “duty” to fly to Moscow and “leave no stone unturned”.

“This is not a friendly visit. I’ve just come from Ukraine and saw with my own eyes the untold suffering caused by the Russian war of aggression,” he said.

Nehammer informed EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel as well as Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj in advance of his planned visit.

Austrian diplomatic sources said they were under no illusions about the chances of success of the chancellor’s mission, but felt it necessary because of Austria’s unique relationship with Russia. Austria, which is not a NATO member and is officially neutral under its constitution, has long sought to bridge European and Russian interests, not least because of its historical ties to Moscow.

No other European leader is politically fit to undertake the trip, a diplomat said, alluding to this the French elections.

On the instructions of Austrian officials, no photos were taken of the meeting and no press conference was held with Putin, as the Kremlin could use this as propaganda.

Nehammer said he confronted Putin directly about it War crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine and said those responsible must be held accountable. He told Putin that there was no way for him to “win” the conflict now and urged him to back off from further escalation.

“I also told President Putin in no uncertain terms that as long as people are dying in Ukraine, sanctions against Russia will remain in place and continue to be tightened. The EU is more united than ever on this issue,” he said.

Nehammer felt it was important to deliver hard truths “face to face” to Putin, said an Austrian diplomat, who said the Russian leader was living in an information bubble.

Austria’s chancellery did not provide a reading of Russia’s response to the chancellor’s demarche, but a member of the delegation said Putin had repeated historic complaints about Western interference in Russian affairs.

Putin refused to call the conflict a “war,” they added, and he said the allegations of atrocities against civilians in Bucha were a Ukrainian “provocation.”

While acknowledging the damage the sanctions are doing to the economy, the Russian leader said that resolving the conflict in Donbass was a higher priority, to his satisfaction. Austria’s Nehammer says Putin meeting left “no positive impression”.

Adam Bradshaw

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