Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer recently paid a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, as reported by Reuters. The first EU leader to tread on Russian soil since the country launched its invasion of Ukraine six weeks ago, Nehammer urged Putin to put an end to the war.
The April 11th meeting, held at Austria’s request, took place in Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence near Moscow. During their 75-minute talk, held behind closed doors—and which, according to Nehammer, was “very direct, open and tough”—Nehammer encountered great difficulty in mollifying an intractable Putin. “I have no optimistic impression that I can bring you from this conversation with President Putin,” he later said to the press, adding that “looking each other in the eye, discussing the horrors of war,” could have a greater impact in the long term, but that “it might be necessary to do it 100 times.” He found the meeting necessary, however, “so that peace reigns again and the people of Ukraine can live safely.”
Bringing a halt to hostilities was not the only topic under discussion. The need for an opening up of humanitarian corridors, so that civilians trapped in besieged cities can access food and water, was of concern to Nehammer. He also told Putin that those responsible for war crimes in the Ukrainian city of Bucha and elsewhere would be “held to account,” and that the sanctions—from an EU that is “as united as it’s ever been”—against Russia “will remain and will become harsher for as long as people continue dying in Ukraine.”
Ahead of the meeting, Nehammer tweeted that the country has a clear position on the “Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” and that “it must stop.”
The Austrian leader called the Moscow trip his “duty,” so as to exhaust every possibility for ending the violence in Ukraine. It came only two days after his visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Kyiv.
Austria, which is not a NATO member and favors a policy of neutrality, has been a supporter of EU sanctions in order to cripple the Russian war machine. Yet, these hurt Europe’s economy while significantly lowering living standards in the process. Now that their effectiveness is increasingly in doubt, Austria stands out among member states for pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine debacle.
It hereby eschews the drive towards the continued arming of Ukraine, coming from the EU leadership’s most prominent figures, such as Foreign Policy Chief Joseph Borrell. “Normally, wars have been won and lost on the battlefields,” Borrell told reporters at a meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday. That day, the bloc approved an extra €500 million fund to buy more arms for Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, the news was not well-received by the Kremlin. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented that this “considerably changes the rules of the game,” that “the European Union has not acted as a military organization ever before,” and promised his department would analyze these statements within two days and make an official statement.
Nehammer’s initiative received criticism both at home and abroad. Shortly after news of the planned trip reached him, deputy mayor of the beleaguered coastal city of Mariupol, Sergei Orlow, told the German newspaper Bild this is “not appropriate today.” During a TV broadcast, he said that “the war crimes that Russia is currently committing on Ukrainian soil are still taking place,” and that he didn’t “understand how a conversation with Putin can be held at this time, treating it like business to be conducted with him.”
The opposition in Austria was skeptical about Nehammer’s (ÖVP) success. Among the Greens, sentiment about the trip ranged from cautious to critical. Fellow ÖVP-er, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg however defended his chairman. “Every voice that makes it clear to Putin what the reality outside the Kremlin’s walls is really like is not for naught,” the minister said on Monday.