By Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi
ZURICH (Reuters) – Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, he said, adding he hoped to help build bridges between Russia and Ukraine and stop the “war of aggression”.
Nehammer’s meeting would be the first face-to-face encounter between Putin and a European Union leader since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, triggering a broad Western effort to isolate Moscow.
“I’m going to meet Vladimir #Putin in Moscow tomorrow,” Nehammer wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
“We are militarily neutral, but (have) a clear position on the Russian war of aggression against #Ukraine,” he wrote, referring to Austria’s position. “It must stop! It needs humanitarian corridors, ceasefire & full investigation of war crimes.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed to RIA news agency that Putin would be holding talks with Nehammer on Monday.
The Russian leader has been largely shunned by Western leaders since the start of the conflict, though he met Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Kremlin in early March.
Nehammer’s planned trip to Moscow comes after he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv on Saturday.
Nehammer told journalists that, with the Moscow visit, he aimed to act as a “bridge builder” between Russia and Ukraine, hoping to “do everything possible to make (the war) stop” and to “ensure that steps are taken in the direction of peace”, Austrian news agency APA reported.
However he added that the chances of achieving progress were slim, APA said.
Neutral Austria has been providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine as well as helmets and body armour for civilians rather than weapons. Nehammer, a conservative, has been clearly moved by telephone conversations with Zelenskiy and says he wants to show support.
Nehammer said on Twitter he had briefed other “European partners” regarding his visit to Moscow, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan “and of course also Ukrainian president” Zelenskiy.
There was criticism for his planned visit in some German-language media, and from at least one Ukrainian official.
Sergei Orlov, deputy mayor of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, told Germany’s Bild such a visit was unacceptable at the present time.
“The war crimes that Russia is committing right now on Ukrainian soil are still taking place,” Orlov said during a TV broadcast. “I don’t understand how a conversation can be held with Putin at this time, how business can be conducted with him.”
Russia has rejected allegations by Ukraine and Western countries of war crimes. It has said it is not targetting civilians during what it calls a “special operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour.
(Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Alex Richardson and Frances Kerry)